After years of stalled effort, the city of Spokane is poised to hire an officer to enforce civil rights laws.
The position’s proponents worry that, without it, existing laws against housing, employment and other forms of discrimination throughout Spokane aren’t being enforced.
City Council members who have championed the position for years see it as a long-overdue step in the right direction. Community advocates for equity and justice agree, but question whether a single person will be able to bear the burden.
And while the commitment to hiring a civil rights officer exists, the job description isn’t finalized. The scope of the position’s possible responsibilities seems endless, but the resources will be limited.
Jac Archer, a steering committee member at Spokane Community Against Racism, worries that “having a single person do that work is to both set up that person and that work for failure.”
“We’d really love to see models more similar to what has happened in other cities where it’s fully staffed and funded,” said Archer, who is one of several community leaders on an Office of Civil Rights exploratory task force.
The Spokane City Council, which had money set aside for the position each of the past three years, has long pushed for the creation of a civil rights officer role. But it was not filled by former Mayor David Condon, who left it up to existing city officials to handle civil rights complaints.
“The administration chose not to fill the position,” Councilwoman Lori Kinnear said. “The funding was always there.”
The council set aside $125,000 and won a commitment to fill the position during budget negotiations with first-year Mayor Nadine Woodward, who agreed to fill it in exchange for the council’s acceptance of a Community and Economic Development Division director.
The genesis of the position dates back to 2017, when the Spokane City Council updated its own set of civil rights laws, said City Council President Breean Beggs.
The update expanded the city’s jurisdiction on civil rights in three main ways. It added refugees as a protected class, it made housing discrimination illegal regardless of how many units the landlord owns and outlawed employment discrimination regardless of how many employees a company or organization has.
Federal and state enforcement applies only to landlords and employers who exceed a certain threshold of units or employees, Beggs noted. Below that, the city is responsible for enforcing civil rights complaints.
“There’s this gap in fed and state law,” Beggs explained. “Everyone thinks ‘Oh, all those laws apply,’ but they don’t. In the city of Spokane, they do.”
Civil rights is too often viewed in the abstract, evoking the marches and social movement of decades ago, Archer said.
Civil rights “has to do with all of the freedoms that a person living in a place should be able to expect as far as their social freedom and equity,” Archer said. “It’s, ‘Are you able to do the business of life where you are at on equal footing with your fellow residents?’ ”
But civil rights protections mean little without enforcement of the law.
First and foremost, Beggs envisions the civil rights officer fielding complaints. They would conduct a sort of triage.
If federal or state law applies, they would direct the complainant to the proper agency. If not, the civil rights officer would investigate the case and aim for mediation. If it can’t be resolved, the case could be prosecuted in Municipal Court.
Frequently, Beggs said, “it’s just education,” such as informing a landlord they are legally required to allow a tenant to have a service dog.
It’s unclear just how many complaints the officer might receive.
“The first priority is to advertise the fact that we are doing enforcement,” Beggs said.
Dean Lynch, president of the Spokane County Human Rights Task Force board, said the extent of abuse alleged against Boy Scouts of America leaders was illuminated only when, facing hundreds of lawsuits, the organization filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and a deadline was set for victims to file a claim seeking compensation.
Though Lynch admitted the comparison between sexual abuse and civil rights violations is a clumsy one, his point was that “once it became acceptable to report, then we started to get a picture, as the Boy Scouts of America discovered this year.”
When it comes to civil rights issues in Spokane, “by having an opportunity for people to report, that is how we’re going to learn the full extent of the problem,” Lynch said.
Addressing complaints of discrimination is just one facet of what community leaders believe an Office of Civil Rights could handle. Rather than create a new office, the City Council placed the civil rights officer position under the auspices of code enforcement.
Archer pointed to the universities and companies that hire a diversity officer, only to have that person become a “clearing house” for complaints and concerns.
“That job ends up being completely impossible because you can’t expect a single person to handle all the needs of a huge chunk of the community they’re serving,” Archer said.
Lynch also believes that an entire office, rather than just one officer, would be more effective. He suggested that the office could oversee equity within city government, looking at bias in hiring, promotion and pay scale between genders, for example.
Beggs and others also would like the position to include a community outreach component.
“This position would be a person who would be working with the community to help with identifying resources, identifying problems, working with the community in creating resources, creating training, and creating an awareness,” Lynch said.
For it to be truly effective, Kurtis Robinson, who advocated for the position and is president of the Spokane Chapter of NAACP, said it needs to be expanded countywide. Organizations like his are dealing with “a ridiculous amount of complaints that flood our office.”
“We’ve got something in motion now that will hopefully bear fruit,” Robinson said.