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Spokane City Council unanimously backs labor deal with Police Guild after years of delay

UPDATED: Mon., March 1, 2021

The Spokane City Council on Monday approved a labor contract with the Spokane Police Guild.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
The Spokane City Council on Monday approved a labor contract with the Spokane Police Guild. (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

City and police union leaders are one step away from ending years of impasse, delays and off-and-on negotiations.

The Spokane City Council unanimously approved a new labor contract with the Spokane Police Guild on Monday.

If approved by Guild members, it would be the first new contract between the city and its officers since the previous agreement expired more than four years ago. The Guild membership’s vote is expected to wrap up on Tuesday morning.

After years of friction between city and union leaders over police accountability, council members expressed confidence Monday that the new agreement finally meets oversight standards embedded in the city charter.

“I do believe we can support police and support oversight at the same time, and that’s what I think this contract does,” said Councilwoman Candace Mumm.

Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward said the agreement “complies with the city charter and gets us moving forward again.”

The approval of the five-year contract will result in a 3.5% average annual raise in pay and benefits for officers. The first four years of the contract are retroactive because it replaces a previous agreement that expired at the end of 2016.

Monday’s approval came less than three weeks after the agreement was announced, but it was years in the making.

Long-stalled negotiations finally appeared to make headway last year when Woodward introduced a tentative agreement, but it quickly sparked community outrage amid the surging national movement for police accountability in 2020.

The City Council unanimously rejected that proposal, agreeing with community leaders that it did not empower the Spokane Police Ombudsman, the department’s civilian watchdog, to the extent demanded by the city charter.

Since that defeat, Woodward and Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs have personally taken a seat at the negotiating table and worked to iron out differences between the Guild and city on police oversight.

Woodward credited the Guild with inviting both Beggs and her to participate in contract discussions.

“They invited that conversation and were willing to try something new, and it worked,” Woodward said.

The public outcry was absent this year. Only one resident testified on the contract proposal at Monday’s meeting.

The new contract, city leaders believe, provides sufficient independent oversight by the ombudsman, who is tasked with fielding and investigating citizens’ complaints against officers but does not have disciplinary power.

The Office of the Police Ombudsman was created in 2008 and was followed by the passage of a city charter amendment codifying its powers in 2013. But the city has always struggled to merge what is written in the city’s laws with what is laid out in the Guild’s contract.

Two crucial sticking points have been the ombudsman’s right to independently investigate a complaint and to publish a “closing report” documenting findings following an investigation into officer misconduct.

The new contract explicitly authorizes the ombudsman to write a closing report “so long as the closing report does not identify specific members of the department and does not in any way comment on officer discipline (or lack thereof).”

Although he described it as an improvement over the version shot down last year, Spokane Police Ombudsman Bart Logue has expressed mixed feelings about the contract proposal. He told The Spokesman-Review in February that even under the new language, his right to independently investigate a complaint would remain full of hurdles.

Although the city charter calls for independent investigations by the ombudsman, Beggs said the city is constrained by state labor laws that limit changes in working conditions.

“We have finally fleshed out the charter’s promise within existing state law,” Beggs said.

Councilwoman Kate Burke supported the contract, but called on the city to begin community conversations about police reform that were promised in 2020 but have yet to materialize.

The increase in wages and benefits will total $9.5 million over the life of the deal. For the first four years, the city will pull from its reserves to cover the raises. The 2021 pay increase already was planned for in the 2021 budget.

Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl praised his department’s officers for their “professionalism” while working without a new contract in recent years. He also said the new contract should make the city more competitive when recruiting new officers.

Even if approved by the Guild, the union soon will head back to the negotiating table with the city to begin talks on a deal that covers 2022 and future years.

“It’s been four years, going on five this year, since our officers have had a contract,” said Councilman Michael Cathcart. “Hopefully, we’ll avoid that again in the future.”

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