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Who should be the boss of Spokane’s city attorney? Voters will decide in November

Oct. 3, 2022 Updated Wed., Oct. 5, 2022 at 7:38 p.m.

As the sun sets in downtown Spokane, a pedestrian walks by the entrance of the City Hall building on Oct. 11, 2021.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
As the sun sets in downtown Spokane, a pedestrian walks by the entrance of the City Hall building on Oct. 11, 2021. (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Voters next month will weigh in on a power struggle between Spokane City Council members and the mayor’s office over legal representation.

Proposition 1 asks voters whether to approve revisions to the city charter that would change the way Spokane’s top attorney is selected and dismissed, and give lawmakers more say in what legal actions City Hall takes. The proposal was authored by City Council President Breean Beggs, an attorney who has for years pushed for changes to the office that he believes will eliminate favoritism, or the appearance of favoritism, by the city attorney for its mayor.

“The proposal is my evolution in thinking on it,” said Beggs, who has in the past pushed for voters to directly elect the position, as they do in Seattle. Instead, the changes in the ballot measure would give a majority of the City Council the authority to nominate the city attorney, over which the mayor would have absolute veto power.

The same is true of the attorney’s dismissal, which would require a majority of the council to fire the attorney with cause. The change would take that power away from the mayor, who possesses it exclusively under the current charter.

Mayor Nadine Woodward, who has faced opposition from a majority on the council on several issues including the site of a police precinct in the East Central neighborhood and the administration’s steps to provide assistance to the homeless, said the proposal was another attempt by lawmakers to wrest some of the authority that belongs to Spokane’s strong mayor.

“It’s another example of the council’s desire to erode the authority of the mayor,” she said.

The measure also will guarantee a seven-year term for an appointed city attorney. That’s to ensure applicants with managerial experience who won’t have to be concerned about losing their job if a different mayor is elected after four years, or if they can be removed by the mayor without cause, Beggs said.

“Why would they leave a successful law practice if they could lose it all?” Beggs said.

Woodward said all members of her cabinet serve under those provisions, and the seven-year term allows the city attorney to become eligible for municipal retirement benefits. While Beggs sees that as an incentive to attract hires, Woodward argued it created an unequal workplace.

“Why wouldn’t any other cabinet-level member of the team want those kinds of benefits?” Woodward said.

Beggs said he moved away from the idea of an elected attorney because of the potential continued perception that the attorney’s seat could be bought with political donations or votes.

“The more I thought about it, we don’t need another elected official to get independence,” he said. “We just need actual independence.”

Though he’d been thinking about the proposal for years, Beggs admitted that the current legal guidance being given to the city on enforcement of camping laws had pushed him to put the issue before voters this year.

“In my time on City Council, particularly in the past year, I’ve seen the need for it more,” Beggs said.

Woodward defended the city’s legal guidance on camping laws, noting that the council passed its own legislation after conferring with the city’s legal team.

“I think the legal advice that we’ve been given aligns with the legal advice that many other attorneys, and many other states and cities, have aligned with,” she said.

“Do you find an attorney that’s going to agree with everything you say? I think that’s going to be hard,” Woodward said.

Beggs’ proposal also includes a requirement that lawmakers vote on when to initiate litigation. He pointed to the city’s delay under the David Condon administration to join litigation against companies producing the medications that fueled the opioid epidemic as an instance where lawmakers may have made a different decision.

“We lost out on millions of dollars,” Beggs said.

A voting requirement still would permit the council and legal advisers to discuss the merits of a lawsuit in executive session before voting publicly on commencing litigation, Beggs said. That would prevent the city from putting itself in a bad spot in the courtroom, where lawyers facing the city could use council deliberations as evidence.

Another benefit for lawmakers would be the ability receive legal advice without it being subject to public disclosure, Beggs said. He pointed to the release in 2017 of a memo from the council’s legal adviser that concluded a measure to ban oil trains from traveling through town likely would face a successful legal challenge as an example of legal communication that would remain confidential under the new system.

“If we had our own lawyer, we could say, here’s the thing, have you thought about this case?” Beggs said. “I don’t have to worry about putting something in writing that is going to be put out in public.”

Joe Shogan, an attorney and former city council president, said he didn’t see the need for lawmakers to get more involved in the selection of the city attorney.

“The first obligation of an attorney is to enforce the law,” Shogan said. “The mayor is required to appoint someone to be nonpolitical and enforce the law.”

Shogan said he didn’t believe a city attorney’s oath to support the law should be superseded by a desire to please their boss.

“It would be a presumption to think that the city attorney would be biased,” Shogan said.

The charter changes also would permit the mayor and the city council to acquire independent, special counsel with written notice to the other branch of government. Such a lawyer could be hired to advise the branches on legal matters involving them or in which they’re interested, according to the proposal, and cost the city additional money.

For example, in just the past month, the city has agreed to contracts for special counsel advising officials on environmental permits, civil service appeals and other issues.

Ballots for the general election will begin to be mailed Oct. 19. A city charter amendment requires a simple majority to pass. Election Day is Nov. 8.

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