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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Final fight: Condon, City Council spar over city salaries

The Downtown Spokane Partnership will honor former Spokane Mayor David Condon and three others during its annual meeting Thursday. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)
The Downtown Spokane Partnership will honor former Spokane Mayor David Condon and three others during its annual meeting Thursday. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)

A day before he left office, former Mayor David Condon made one last stand in his adversarial relationship with the Spokane City Council. And now that he has left office, the council may push back.

On Dec. 30, Condon vetoed the City Council’s changes to the law that governs the Salary Review Commission – a board that sets the salaries of the mayor and City Council members – dismayed the revisions did not broaden the scope of the commission’s oversight.

Contrary to Condon’s protests, the council says it was following the advice of the mayor’s own human resources director and will consider an override of Condon’s veto.

An override would require a five-member supermajority of the council. A vote could come at its Monday meeting.

Condon hoped the new law would allow the Salary Review Commission to evaluate the pay and benefits of employees who aren’t part of a union and are not subjected to Civil Service requirements, such as department heads and City Council staff.

“If given the authority, the Salary Review Commission would be able to provide important independent review of exempt salaries to improve transparency,” Condon wrote in a letter to the City Council. “Unfortunately, the Council has chosen to ignore the need for more transparency in exempt employee salaries.”

The City Council, heeding the advice of the human resources department, did not include such employees in its final draft of the legislation.

“My puzzlement isn’t that the mayor vetoed it. It’s why the mayor and HR director weren’t communicating. … I just assumed they would be talking, she works for him,” said Councilwoman Lori Kinnear.

Council members who supported the legislation also note job descriptions and pay scales are already in place for exempt employees.

“We have the structure in place to handle that,” said Councilwoman Karen Stratton.

The work to reconsider the scope of the Salary Review Commission’s makeup and authority began with the formation of a joint taskforce in 2018. It included representatives from the City Council, the Spokane Managerial & Professional Association, former Human Resources Director Christine Cavanaugh, a Salary Review Commission member, and others.

The group considered implementing a system under which the Salary Review Commission would evaluate the roughly 40 confidential exempt employees in the city, many of whom work for the City Council or in the mayor’s cabinet.

Under the policy the taskforce considered, the Salary Review Commission would work with the human resources department to determine appropriate salary and benefits for exempt employees and make a recommendation. The group never determined if that recommendation would be binding, according to Kinnear.

The workgroup also scrapped a proposal to allow exempt confidential employees to opt out of the city retirement system and instead use a 401k. The reason, Kinnear said, was that the city’s retirement system “works because everybody’s in it.”

The third and final substantive change to the law would require that the commission consist of three members with experience in personnel management and two members who have a background in business or finance.

The proposal died quietly last year, until Cavanaugh resurrected it, according to Kinnear.

Under the proposal ultimately brought forward and adopted by the City Council in December, only the third piece of the taskforce’s proposal – establishing professional requirements for Salary Review Commission members – would be added to city law.

The council passed the new ordinance on Dec. 16, leaving exempt confidential employees out of the Salary Review Commission’s oversight.

The city’s human resources department had warned that reviewing more than 40 positions in coordination with the Salary Review Commission “would be burdensome to our HR department,” Kinnear said. The process could take months and, in the meantime, a qualified candidate could very well find a different job.

“When HR comes to me and says, ‘We can’t do this,’ all bets are off. We can’t do it. They are the experts,” Kinnear said.

Condon more readily struck down laws adopted by the City Council than his predecessors, vetoing more council actions than the previous four mayors combined.

Condon declined a request for comment from The Spokesman-Review on Tuesday.

His veto letter ended with a final shot at a City Council with which he had so often been at odds, particularly in a fraught final stretch of his tenure that included battles over the city budget and a plan to expand homeless shelter for the winter.

“As a new administration begins, I strongly encourage you to rethink your approach to transparency and collaboration – our citizens deserve it,” Condon wrote.

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