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Woodward, Spokane City Council at odds over adding chief of staff to mayor’s office

Mayor Nadine Woodward is requesting additional staff to advise her on top priorities including housing and homelessness.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Mayor Nadine Woodward is requesting additional staff to advise her on top priorities including housing and homelessness. (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward believes her office needs more help to tackle priority issues like housing and homelessness.

Her request to add a chief of staff, however, has some members of the Spokane City Council scratching their heads.

The ask was bundled in legislation reviewed last week by the City Council’s Finance and Administration Committee. The proposed ordinance also includes a new executive assistant for City Administrator Johnnie Perkins and raises for staffers in the City Council office.

When and how the proposals might return to the City Council for consideration is unclear based on the feedback received from last Monday’s meeting, said Council President Breean Beggs.

Duties for the chief of staff would include developing policy, providing counsel and executive support to the mayor on issues including strategic objectives, overseeing organizational and community initiatives, and facilitating the mayor’s cabinet meetings, according to a draft description provided through the city.

Woodward said this position would serve as something like a chief strategic officer who would work in tandem with Perkins, the city’s chief operating officer in charge of putting policy into action.

“We are in a process of identifying funds as we move the homeless initiative forward, because there is a higher cost to that, but in order to do the work, we have to have the staffing to do the work,” she said.

The job’s salary and benefits would total approximately $148,000. When asked to justify the chief of staff cost given issues like homelessness facing the city, Woodward pointed to the City Council’s staffing additions in 2020, including a communications director and four research analysts.

Woodward, who believes the mayor’s office staff has been “very, very small” even before her time in office, pointed to Salt Lake City and Boise as comparable city governments that employ mayoral chiefs of staff.

“Coming out of this pandemic, I would really like to spend the rest of my first term focusing on what my initiatives are of housing, homelessness, economic development and public safety,” Woodward said, “and to have staff that can assist me with that is imperative.”

The salary and benefits for the city administrator’s executive assistant would total approximately $55,500, according to the legislation.

Given the extent of Perkins’ responsibilities, which also include labor negotiations and employee relations, Woodward said she was surprised he doesn’t already have an assistant. While not included in this proposal, the mayor plans to again request a deputy city administrator position in the 2023 budget after the council rejected the idea for this year’s spending plan.

The approximately $42,700 in raises proposed for four council office positions to bring them to a level equivalent to similar administration positions, said Council President Breean Beggs. The largest is a $21,700 proposed increase for Hannahlee Allers, director of the City Council office; Beggs said Allers currently makes approximately $80,700.

Beggs said the city’s Human Resources department recommended to reclassify Allers’ salary since her supervisory responsibilities have grown with the expansion in council office staff.

“We just hadn’t gotten around to doing it, and she’s doing a much bigger job than what she used to,” Beggs said.

Brandy Cote, the director of the mayor’s office, is listed on the city’s website as the chief of staff, as she has worked in that role “on paper,” but not formally, said city spokesman Brian Coddington. Under the proposed organizational chart, Cote would work under the chief of staff in a position titled “director of strategic initiatives.”

Along with Perkins, the mayor’s office staff includes the office director, an operations manager and a policy adviser. Beggs does not support the chief of staff proposal, saying he does not see a difference between that job and a director of the mayor’s office.

“From what I understood listening to the mayor and City Administrator Perkins, they want someone to do more policy work than operational work, but they already have a policy adviser,” he said. “Really, the City Council is the one that does policy. The mayor’s office does operations.”

Councilwoman Lori Kinnear also said she sees overlap with the mayor’s chief of staff and the director of strategic initiatives.

At the moment, she would support the raise for Allers, given the circumstances of how that was promised to her more than a year ago, and the executive assistant for Perkins given his level of responsibilities.

Kinnear said she is otherwise reluctant to consider the other proposals given how levels of pay for lower-wage city employees is not congruent with the city’s cost of living – something she hopes to see addressed in the next round of union contract negotiations.

One of the proposed raises in the council office is for a vacant position, the initiative manager for housing and homelessness. Kinnear said she plans to suggest not filling that job, instead turning that work over to the city’s housing and human services department.

“That is a lot of money, and I just have a little bit of heartburn over that,” Kinnear said of the chief of staff’s salary and benefits. “Ultimately, I want to make sure that we’re taking care of the staff, first and foremost, in terms of salary and benefits. Once we do that, we can look at other positions.”

Councilwoman Karen Stratton also believes there is enough staff in the mayor’s office and the city that could handle what a chief of staff could do for Woodward. She would, however, support the council salary increases, while she isn’t entirely sold on the executive assistant for Perkins.

Clearer are Stratton’s feelings that the proposed increases are awkwardly timed.

“Some of us are still going over to Camp Hope and checking on people, and that’s been a big priority to get people sheltered,” she said. “To me, that should be where our focus is at right now.”

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