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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Breean Beggs: Prop 1 creates an independent city attorney who will work for all of Spokane

Breean Beggs

By Breean Beggs

If you care about lower taxes, greater public safety and the protection of individual rights in Spokane, vote yes on Proposition 1 for a city attorney who works for you. For too long, the city attorney in Spokane has been, in practice, the mayor’s attorney first, working to protect their interests rather than truly being the attorney for all residents of Spokane. This can, and does, lead to unproductive conflict between the mayor and the City Council and undermines the trust of the community in its government.

Proposition 1 empowers Spokane voters to secure true independence by ensuring that the city attorney is jointly selected by the mayor and City Council on behalf of the entire city, and that they can only be terminated by agreement of the mayor and council. Just like the police ombudsman and the hearing examiner, the city attorney’s office should be independent and nonpolitical and Proposition 1 gives the city attorney power to give independent legal advice to the entire city government without taking political battles into account.

Many former city attorneys agree that the protection of independence in the city charter would have helped them do a better job and would have created more confidence in them from both inside city government and from the entire community. If voters choose independence, both the mayor and the City Council will have the right to their own attorney who can provide them with confidential advice and serve their interests; and will leave the city attorney with the ability to focus exclusively on the best interest of the entire city without regard to the politics of either mayor or council.

Voting for an independent attorney will ultimately save taxpayers money by reducing the number of ill-advised lawsuits by the city and supplying nonpolitical advice to all city leaders that will keep the city out of court and avoid unnecessary legal costs without increasing the budget of the city attorney’s office.

Importantly, providing the newly independent city attorney with just cause job protection and a pension enjoyed by most city employees, we will be able to attract a larger and likely more talented applicant pool that will further save taxpayer dollars and increase efficiency. The mayor and council can still jointly act to terminate a nonperforming attorney at any time, but it will only be for poor performance, not because they disagree with an independent legal opinion.

Proposition 1 doesn’t restrict the power of the mayor or the council to secure their own legal advice. For the first time, it would give them each the power to obtain their own confidential legal advice. Without this change, the city attorney is required to share the information they know from either council or mayor with the other and they have limited ability to get confidential advice, further diminishing government effectiveness. The mayor and council each need the ability to share confidential thoughts with an attorney and by doing so can get the best advice needed to provide the best possible service to community members. Proposition 1 achieves this without interfering in the daily operations of the city attorney.

Most importantly, under Proposition 1 city residents can have more confidence that whatever opinion the newly independent city attorney announces, it will be without favor to either the mayor or the council and will be their best professional judgment, uncolored by any actual or perceived fear of losing their job.

Our relatively new city charter created both a strong city council and a strong mayor. The council is responsible for setting policy and the mayor is responsible for implementing the policies enacted by council. The drafters of the charter likely never anticipated that a mayor would threaten or terminate a city attorney who held a different legal opinion, but that is currently possible and even the appearance of that occurring undermines community confidence in city government. Fortunately, the voters have the tools to amend and improve the charter by a vote of the people and we have done so many times over the past few years. Proposition 1 gives voters the exclusive power to create needed independence for their city attorney that better meets the spirit of Spokane’s city charter – one that requires the mayor, council and hopefully the city attorney to work together for the common good.

Vote to ensure that our city attorney has true independence and their office will better protect our community while saving taxpayer dollars. Vote yes on Proposition 1.

Breean Beggs is Spokane City Council president.

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