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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Council president, mayor’s office at odds over Spokane Police Department positions

Brian Bower, left, and Shawn Tweedt, of Sign Corp., install the first of two window signs outside the new Downtown Spokane Police Precinct on Riverside Avenue at Wall Street, Friday, Oct. 16, 2020.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Brian Bower, left, and Shawn Tweedt, of Sign Corp., install the first of two window signs outside the new Downtown Spokane Police Precinct on Riverside Avenue at Wall Street, Friday, Oct. 16, 2020. (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

The Spokane City Council’s leader says he wants three top officials in the Spokane Police Department to have the protections of civil services and a union, but the mayor’s office is warning his proposal would force them out of a job.

Council President Breean Beggs has proposed an ordinance that would restructure the Spokane Police Department, shifting several mayor-appointed positions back into the Spokane County Civil Services system.

Beggs believes the change can be made without ousting the people already in those jobs, but the administration disagrees.

In an email to police department officials and prominent community leaders, City Administrator Johnnie Perkins warned last week that the three employees – including the only two female leaders on the police department’s executive team – would lose their jobs.

“The Mayor has continued to promote and advocate for a diverse and inclusionary workforce, including opportunities for woman to advance into and maintain leadership positions in traditionally male-dominated service areas,” Perkins wrote. “This legislation by the Council President is in direct conflict with that vision and the goal of ensuring a diverse, equitable and inclusionary workforce.”

Beggs disagreed and called the uproar a “political attack.”

“I think it actually gives female leaders, civilian leaders in the department, the same protections that female uniformed leaders would get,” Beggs said of his proposal.

The sparring is the latest debate in a yearslong push-and-pull between the city’s legislative and executive branches over political appointments.

Civil services exists to ensure employees are chosen based on merit and to eliminate hiring practices like nepotism. In place in Spokane for more than a century, the office ensures a highly structured hiring process based on factors like test results, not personal connections.

Civil services also ensures that a person is fired for cause, such as poor performance, not just because of a personality conflict with a supervisor.

Positions exempt from civil service are hired and fired at will by the mayor, who doesn’t have to pull from an established list of candidates as she would under civil services. Essentially, they offer the administration more flexibility and choice in who they employ.

Beggs said he is fixing an issue that began under former Mayor David Condon, who created more civil services-exempt leadership positions in City Hall, which he said was an effort to make city government more modern and nimble. To circumvent city law that caps positions exempt from civil service rules at two per department, the Condon administration created departments within departments.

A legal challenge by Spokane Firefighters Union forced the city to scale back the number of exempt positions Condon created in the Spokane Fire Department. Beggs said he’s now simply trying to change the Police Department’s leadership structure to match it.

In practice, bringing these positions under civil services would be a logistical maze and effectively lay off the two women in them, city spokesman Brian Coddington said.

“You can’t guarantee someone would have a job in the civil service position. The process for that is pretty complicated and requires that they retest for their positions, try to get on a list and go through the interview process,” Coddington said.

The one exception is for employees who have previously worked under civil services, who have what’s known as “bump back rights,” Coddington said.

But the three employees the administration is concerned about were hired into positions that were already exempted, meaning they would not fall back into the fold by default. They are Police Business Services Director Jennifer Hammond, Director of Strategic Initiatives Jacqui MacConnell and Deputy Director of Police Records Gary Redding.

Beggs’ intent, he said, is to keep the women in the same position at the same compensation. The latest draft of the ordinance explicitly states it will have “no effect on the employment status of any person who holds an exempt position” as of Dec. 1.

“I’m not aware that we couldn’t put language in that would guarantee their job,” Beggs said. “If they did have to apply for their position, I can’t imagine that there’s anyone more qualified than they are. They’re doing their job, they’re well-regarded.”

There’s an ongoing conversation about whether or not ensuring those employees keep their job is legally possible, Coddington said, and that’s why the administration wants the council to hold off.

The civil services hiring process is different than in the private sector or for exempt positions in City Hall, Coddington stressed. The city would have to establish a test, from which a list of the 10 highest-ranked candidates would be considered.

Just creating the new classified positions under civil services would require an effort the Human Resources Department is not currently equipped to take on by May 31, the deadline Beggs’ ordinance sets, Coddington argued. The administration asked for an extra position in the 2022 budget to do such work, but the council has not appeared to support funding it.

Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl said he believes civil services has an important place in government, but when it comes to leadership positions, he prefers the flexibility of an exempt employee – particularly given the intense public scrutiny under which the Police Department operates.

Civil services inherently narrows the pool of people you can choose from, he said.

“Having these positions basically be appointed positions allows the chief of police, including the chief long after I’m gone, to pick somebody who they think brings a different lens,” Meidl said.

There are several aspects to a candidate that can’t be captured in a civil services exam, Meidl said, such as emotional intelligence.

“You can not develop a test that will measure the scope of things needed at a higher level,” Meidl said.

Top officials in the Police Department directly represent the chief, he added. It’s not only important that the chief has a choice in hiring, but also in firing someone who isn’t the right fit.

“The chief has to have flexibility to ensure that he or she gets people in those key leadership positions that help move the agency in the direction it needs to go,” Meidl said.

Coddington also warned that the restructuring would send a negative signal to prospective employees and could make hiring more difficult in an already tight labor market. Beggs said he proposed the administrative changes months ago and received little feedback, but Coddington denied that administration officials were aware of them until recently.

While Perkins accused Beggs of attempting to rush through the change in an effort to avoid a mayoral veto when a new council takes the helm in the new year, Beggs described the ordinance as a routine end-of-the-year process that coincides with council’s adoption of the budget.

The matter is set for a vote next Monday.

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