Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Woodward says Council’s effort to investigate police chief is part of pattern to usurp strong mayor

Mayor Nadine Woodward, flanked by Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs, left, and Councilmember Michael Cathcart, announces the “Building Opportunity and Choices for All” pilot program outside of a multifamily home on South Lincoln Place on Thursday, June 23, 2022.  (Greg Mason / The Spokesman-Review)

On Monday, Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs and Councilwoman Karen Stratton introduced an ordinance that would empower the Office of the Police Ombudsman to investigate the police chief, in an apparent attempt to maneuver around a disinclined Mayor Nadine Woodward.

Woodward, who argues that a voter-approved amendment to the city charter is necessary to expand the powers of the ombudsman, said this is just the latest example of the City Council’s left-leaning supermajority trying to usurp the powers of the strong mayor approved by voters in 2001.

“I think what’s happening here is a pattern that we’ve seen with this council, that is continually chipping away at my authority as an executive when it comes to the operations of the city,” Woodward said Tuesday .

The complaint has been raised before, including over an ordinance put forward by Beggs last July that would give the City Council the final say in locating new police precincts after Woodward moved one into the former East Central library, or the Beggs-authored Proposition 1 on last November’s ballot that would have given the City Council more authority over the city attorney. The former was passed by the City Council in August, while latter was narrowly defeated by voters.

But Beggs argues that the City Council is simply acting as a check against the mayor, also under the authority provided by the charter to the city’s legislative body.

City spokesman Brian Coddington, the mayor’s unofficial chief of staff, argues that the city charter, likened to Spokane’s constitution, gives Woodward alone the authority to investigate her cabinet officials. A charter provision adopted in 2011 gives the mayor authority to investigate “the affairs of the city.”

“If you’re going to change the authority of the ombudsman to the level that our council president wants to, that’s going to require a charter amendment,” Woodward said.

Beggs acknowledged that the mayor’s power to investigate was prescribed in the city charter, but argued that a more recent 2013 charter amendment formalizing the powers of the Office of the Police Ombudsman has supremacy.

That section directs the office to independently investigate “any matter necessary to fulfill its duties …” which includes investigating complaints alleging officer misconduct. The charter provision does not appear to circumscribe that investigative authority for the department’s highest-ranking officer, the police chief.

The Office of the Police Ombudsman is authorized to monitor and investigate the police department, but under city code, complaints against the police chief must be directed to the mayor and investigated by the city’s human resources department. In April, after activists called for police Chief Craig Meidl to resign amid allegations he had participated in a shadow effort to undermine police reform-minded politicians, Woodward refused to launch an investigation into his conduct, in defiance of members of the City Council majority who insist she is required to do so by city law.

Pointing to this refusal, Beggs and Stratton introduced an ordinance at a Monday committee meeting to expand the ombudsman’s investigative powers. The ordinance is scheduled for an emergency vote on Monday.

On Tuesday, Beggs argued that amending city code to allow the ombudsman to investigate the police chief simply removes language from city code that limited the authority provided to the office under the city charter. Beggs noted the mayor still had the authority to investigate the police chief or anyone else in her administration.

“We are not trying to take powers away from the mayor,” Beggs said . “What we are trying to do is give the full powers of the charter to all of the branches of the city, which includes the council and the ombudsman’s commission.”

Beyond the ongoing struggle between different branches of city government, Woodward contends that Beggs’ push to allow independent investigations into the police chief is motivated by personal animus.

She claimed that Beggs, a long-time advocate for police reforms, wanted to punish Meidl for lobbying the state legislature for a rollback of controversial reforms passed in 2021.

“This is personal to Council President Beggs,” Woodward said. “Our council president was upset with our police chief for spending time in the state legislature the last two seasons and advocating to get the tools back for police officers that were removed in 2021.”

Beggs rejected that characterization, saying he and Meidl disagreed on many matters but had a good working relationship.

“I don’t find any truth to that speculation,” Beggs said. “I do think it’s unfortunate that she is using him as a campaign fodder and keeping him twisting in the wind, rather than doing what she would do with any other executive, which would be a prompt investigation to exonerate him.”