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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spokane restarts search for civil rights director after applicant withdraws

Feb. 21, 2023 Updated Tue., Feb. 21, 2023 at 8:46 p.m.

As the sun sets in downtown Spokane, a pedestrian walks by the entrance of the City Hall building on Oct. 11, 2021. The Spokane City Council is scheduled to vote on a long-delayed slate of policies related to landlords and tenants on Monday.   (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. The Spokane City Council is scheduled to vote on a long-delayed slate of policies related to landlords and tenants on Monday.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW) Buy this photo

More than five years after Spokane’s Office of Civil Rights was first conceived, and after a hiring process for its director lasted over a year, it seemed that the city had finally found its candidate.

On Jan. 27, Mayor Nadine Woodward offered the position to a woman who city officials declined to name because her employer didn’t know she was seeking another job.

But within days, the candidate had rescinded her application. By Feb. 7, the job had been posted again.

To advocates who have pushed for years for the office to be established and staffed, the news is bitterly disappointing.

“Every day that we don’t have a director, every day that we don’t have this office stood up, is another day that somebody’s civil rights are violated and there’s no recourse,” said Anwar Peace at a recent meeting of the Spokane Human Rights Commission, the city volunteer advisory group of which Peace is chair.

Woodward insists that a lot of legwork doesn’t need to be repeated. She added that she is just as disappointed as anyone that the position remains unfilled.

But in a Friday letter to the mayor and City Administrator Johnnie Perkins, Greater Spokane Progress and a number of other advocacy groups expressed frustration with the process and called for three concessions.

First, they called for the finalists for the position to take part in a community forum, allowing the public to vet them.

The administration previously declined to require a community forum if any of the finalists did not agree to one. The unnamed candidate the city had chosen withdrew over continued pressure to take part, which she had declined due to concerns she would get in trouble with her current employer, Woodward said in an interview.

Second, Greater Spokane Progress and ts allies called for an extension to the deadline for applicants, which was originally set for last Sunday, to provide time to widely circulate the opening within the community. The letter also called for a candidate to be hired no later than May.

Finally, the letter called for city officials to agree to a hiring process and timeline with members of the external candidate search committee.

Two days later, Perkins replied, agreeing to extend the application deadline to March 3 and saying the goal would be to hire and announce the director in May with a June 1 start date. He noted that there were already eight applicants.

On other points, Perkins pushed back. There would be no public forum, he said unequivocally. He also emphasized the ways in which the Human Rights Commission, Greater Spokane Progress and other community groups had been involved throughout the protracted process.

While Woodward said that community engagement had been necessary, she argued that it was part of why the process had taken so long.

“We didn’t perceive that it was going to take this long,” she said. “But, again, we’re starting up a whole new office, involving everybody that we felt wanted a voice in this, and that took a while.”

Woodward added that a restart was necessary, rather than turning to one of the other two candidates who the unnamed woman was selected over.

“There was a big difference between the other two candidates and the one I chose,” she said.

How did we get here?

Spokane already has a Human Rights Commission, which is a volunteer advisory group that can bridge the gap between the community and elected leaders. It also has an Office of the Police Ombudsman Commission, which specifically responds to complaints about police misconduct.

The Office of Civil Rights, on the other hand, was conceived as a city office with the staff and resources necessary to investigate alleged nonpolice civil rights violations, city spokesman Brian Coddington said. This could include housing discrimination, he added.

The genesis of the office dates to 2017, when the Spokane City Council updated local civil rights laws. For three years, the City Council set aside funds in the budget to staff the office.

Though members of the Human Rights Commission’s Office of Civil Rights Task Force had recommended that the office have at least six positions, including a director, the Council decided to move forward with three positions, Council President Breean Beggs said.

But it was not filled by former Mayor David Condon, who left the responsibility of handling civil rights complaints to existing city officials. During Woodward’s first year, she agreed to fill the position in exchange for the Council’s acceptance of a Community and Economic Development Division director position, The Spokesman-Review reported at the time.

But by May 2021, some on City Council expressed frustration with what they believed were continued delays to staff the newly created office.

“We’ve been working on it for four years. It’s time to get off the pot and really do something,” City Council member Lori Kinnear said during a Council meeting at the time.

In September 2021, Jerrall Haynes, former president of the Spokane Public Schools Board, was hired as civil rights coordinator. Beggs described Haynes’ role as an interim director until a permanent candidate could be selected, and partly to help define what the director’s position would entail.

By the end of the year, a search was under way. Four applicants were initially selected to move forward, one of whom was disqualified due to not meeting the education requirements.

The Human Rights Commission called on finalists to meet with the public in community forums, but was informed that one candidate had declined. The commission was told that because there was no requirement of the community forum in the original job posting, the city could not require that candidates participate, Peace wrote in an email.

Peace added that he and members of the commission only learned days after that a candidate – the one who had declined a community forum – had been selected. The commission wrote to the candidate, again asking them to participate in a community forum, but did not receive a response.

Not long after, the candidate withdrew from consideration.

Peace said despite his frustration with the process, he has since had a productive conversation with the mayor and city administrator about the process moving forward.

He reiterated the importance of filling the position quickly.

“There are a multitude of examples in the last year of hate crimes taking place,” Peace said. “All of those have gone forward without any redress locally, and the community has no idea that any of this is taking place.

“We’ve got to make a stand in this community. It starts with this Office of Civil Rights.”

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