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Condon's Right Hand 

City Administrator Theresa Sanders tells it like it is — except when she tells it like it isn't

click to enlarge Mayor Condon turned to Theresa Sanders to investigate issues surrounding the city’s police chief. - YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
  • Mayor Condon turned to Theresa Sanders to investigate issues surrounding the city’s police chief.

At the end of August, weeks before Spokane Police Chief Frank Straub's controversial ousting, City Administrator Theresa Sanders called City Council President Ben Stuckart into her seventh-floor City Hall office.

She'd heard that Stuckart was the source of rumors about Straub and former police spokeswoman Monique Cotton. Stuckart denied it. But he also wanted to know, which rumors was she talking about?

He walked up to Sanders' whiteboard, uncapped a dry-erase marker and started diagramming the two categories of rumors he'd been asked about.

One was that Straub and Cotton had an affair — a rumor that's been fervently denied by all parties to this day. "Here's the other rumor I heard: There was sexual harassment going on with Cotton and Straub," Stuckart recalls saying. "I asked her if these rumors were true. She told me: 'No... Absolutely not.'"

Sanders says she doesn't recall Stuckart asking that. She also says she doesn't recall Stuckart's claim that, before the Sept. 22 press conference announcing Straub's departure, he'd asked her if any public records requests could come back to bite them, and she'd said none would.

In fact, it was the city's release of public records — three weeks after Condon's re-election — that showed how closely Sanders knew the truth.

"Met w/ Monique, informed her the mayor had put the matter in my hands to investigate. She was distraught — reiterated claims that Frank Straub grabbed her ass, tried to kiss her," Sanders hand-wrote in her notes on April 14. "Told her I would look into the matter and she would have a job."

Straub continues to deny the sexual harassment allegations, and his attorney declined to comment regarding Sanders. In a saga defined by the tension between truth, untruths and half-truths — between promises made behind closed doors and public pronouncements made at press-conference podiums — Sanders has been central to all of it. At this point, she's the only member of Condon's leadership team to have the city of Spokane ethics commission rule against her.

Yet she's impossible to separate from the long line of the city's recent successes. The Condon administration, in its strengths and weaknesses, is embodied by Theresa Sanders.

"Change the culture"

Both critics and supporters praise Sanders for directness: When Sanders resigned in 2009 as the director of economic development during Mayor Mary Verner's administration, she didn't pretend it was to spend more time with her family.

"My hopes of helping change the culture have not been realized and I find it increasingly difficult to make meaningful, rewarding contributions to the organization," Sanders wrote in her letter of resignation.

"I felt like I was Sisyphus," Sanders says today, referring to the Greek myth of the man punished to infinitely roll a massive boulder up the hill, only to see it roll back down.

Sanders, a Spokane native who once attended North Central High School with city councilman Mike Fagan, has worked for three mayors, two economic development agencies and Microsoft.

"Literally, one day I turned around to count my accomplishments and wasn't pleased with what I'd gotten done," Sanders says about her time in the Verner administration. "I'm an impatient person who has high expectations." (Asked to weigh in on Sanders, Verner declined to comment, saying, "I think it best that I not become embroiled in the controversies surrounding Theresa Sanders.")

Sanders wasn't gone from City Hall for long. In 2011, she says, she got to know Condon as a member of the Inland Northwest Coalition, a business-focused political action committee she chaired. Condon, elected mayor that November, made her the leader of his transition team, and by the end of the year had named her his city administrator.

"She is one that challenges the infamous question of 'Is this the way we've always done it?'" Condon says. The admiration is mutual. Sanders and her husband have donated a total of $7,000 to Condon's two campaigns.

To Gavin Cooley, the city's chief financial officer since 2003, Condon and Sanders made for a duo that drives hard forward, and gets quick results.

"We've been moving forward at such a rapid pace, I've never been in a better spot to talk about accomplishments today," raves Cooley. Problems that once seemed intractable — pothole-pocked streets, skyrocketing utility costs, a polluted river and a perpetual budget gap — started getting solved, he says.

Sanders calls "creating a healthy, sustainable budget, that citizens and employees can count on," her biggest success.

"She's not afraid to get her hands dirty," Cooley says. "She'll jump right in. She's not shy."

Sanders is a problem solver. It's not a surprise, then, that when a problem arose with the police chief and the police spokesman, Condon tasked her to solve it. That's when things got messy.

"Shall be... investigated"

There's a kind of symmetry between Sanders and Straub. Both had strong personalities, Sanders points out, and both wanted to make big changes. So when Sanders heard grumbling about Straub's style, she initially interpreted the frustration as simply a side effect of a hard-charging style.

"He's a difficult guy and he's driving change in the organization, and change is difficult," Sanders says. "Not everybody wants to adapt."

But then came reports of Straub's profanity- and vulgarity-laced tirade on March 31. According to the city's Dec. 11 response to questions posed by the city council, Sanders met with Cotton and multiple other police department employees to discuss Straub's behavior. The mayor and Sanders met directly with Straub to discuss their concerns.

Yet, despite Cotton's willingness to participate in an official investigation regarding Straub's management style, human resources was never involved. "To the best of our understanding, no 'complaint' was ever filed... against Mr. Straub," the city says in its response letter to the council.

In fact, in August 2014, at least two official complaints — not included in the recent records released to the media — were filed with the police ombudsman, accusing Straub of dishonesty. One said he'd been inflating the number of domestic violence calls, while the other said he'd falsely claimed that the department was working with the Center for Justice while developing body camera policies. Both referenced the ombudsman ordinance, saying that "complaints regarding the chief of police shall be directed to the mayor and investigated by the city's human resources department."

But Heather Lowe, the city's director of Human Resources, says she only heard about the complaints once they appeared in the media. "They were never turned over to me," Lowe says. "I don't even have a record of them." Instead, Sanders informed both complainants that she was responsible for handling the complaints. They weren't happy.

"She blew it off," says complainant Tim Connor, formerly with the Center for Justice. "I gave her three witnesses. She talked to none of them."

The Inlander has asked Sanders why the ordinance doesn't appear to have been followed, and she said, to the best of her recollection, that Lowe had recused herself from investigating police department complaints because her husband was a Spokane police officer at the time.

"I have never heard an explanation on why they don't appear to have followed the ordinance ... that requires an investigation by Human Resources," Breean Beggs, attorney for the Office of the Police Ombudsman Commission, says in an email.

Cotton herself has also cast doubt on the administration's claim that she prevented them from conducting a full HR investigation into Straub's abusive style, telling the Inlander that she "fully expected" that to happen.

"There will in fact be consequences"

Even before public records revealed that Cotton's sexual harassment allegations had gone uninvestigated, Sanders' statements were under scrutiny.

In April, Sanders, on her own authority, had offered Cotton a job in the city's parks division, complete with a raise of more than $9,000. By August, the city council expressed public skepticism over the decision, but Sanders defended it: The raise was an "enticement," she told the Spokesman-Review, and she was not "aware of" any issues between Straub and Cotton.

"I couldn't tell you what was going through my head," Sanders now tells the Inlander.

In October, Shar Lichty, Condon's mayoral opponent, filed an ethics complaint accusing Sanders of lying.

In her reply to the complaint, Sanders was indignant, saying she refused to "further victimize" Cotton by discussing her transfer. She wrote that her biggest mistake was discussing the issue with the media at all. She went on the attack.

"Ms. Lichty's claim is irresponsible and malicious as it is intended to garner attention for herself while attempting to harm my personal and professional credibility," Sanders wrote. "I ask the Commission to hold her accountable for causing harm and instruct her that frivolous claims will not be tolerated."

The ethics commission didn't bite. Unanimously, it ruled that if the allegations were true — and Sanders stipulated that they were — Sanders had violated the ethics rules by "repeatedly misrepresenting" the facts. But instead of merely ordering her to be honest in the future, the commission fined her $75 and ordered her to not talk about the details surrounding Cotton's transfer at all.

Two weeks after the commission's decision, records were released showing just how untrue Sanders' statements were. Cotton had specifically informed Sanders of the sexual harassment allegations, asked that they not be investigated, and urged, "My transfer into a new position has to be viewed as an advancement; without any hint that it is for any reason other than a promotion for my past performance."

The barrage of criticism of Sanders has been constant ever since.

"I take it very personally," Sanders says. "All that anyone has is their personal credibility, and I feel my personal credibility is under attack."

Her personal credibility has also been attacked in another police scandal. Discussing an alleged rape of a female police officer by another officer at a party, Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich told KHQ he'd heard that Sanders had pushed the police department to suppress the phrase "sexual assault" from the city's initial press release. Sanders called this a "fabrication."

"There will in fact be consequences for him perpetuating that lie," Sanders said in a KHQ interview.

Knezovich doesn't recall who told him that Sanders was involved, and "sexual assault" did, in fact, end up in the final press release. But he's not backing down.

"I'm not the one with the confirmed ethics complaint against me for lying," Knezovich says. "She is."

That illustrates a key challenge for the Condon administration moving forward: How do you convince the same people who call you a liar to also trust you?

"I'm at a loss," Stuckart says. "When I've asked, point-blank, a question and was not told the truth, how do you then repair that? I don't have an answer for you. That's been my biggest frustration in the last few weeks: How do you get moving again on all these big things we need to be working on?"

Sanders, however, says she's having trust issues as well. She believes that Stuckart should have come to her with his concerns before going to the media.

"I don't feel that we have the open and honest relationship that I thought we had," Sanders says. "Trust is a two-way street."

"The glass precipice"

The fallout from Sanders' and Condon's decisions continues to reverberate. Multiple ethics complaints have now been filed against Condon. On Monday, Nancy Goodspeed, the former parks division spokeswoman, filed an age discrimination suit in connection with Cotton's transfer.

If you're counting, that's three employment attorneys lobbing accusations at the city over the same mess: Straub has filed a $4 million claim for denial of due process, Goodspeed is demanding $1 million and Cotton's attorney has raised the threat that she may seek a claim of her own.

"In the last desperate throes of trying to salvage power, when does Mayor Condon throw Theresa Sanders under the bus?" former Downtown Spokane Partnership President Mike Tedesco wrote on his blog two weeks ago.

In fact, Sanders says that multiple media outlets have called, asking about rumors that she's resigned. She hasn't. But in her decades of experience in male-dominated workplaces, Sanders says she has seen women facing a kind of discrimination called the "glass precipice."

"Elevating women to top positions so you have someone to throw off the cliff when things get bad," Sanders says. "I admit I see a little bit of that."

Condon, with none of the dodging or hedging that has defined many of his answers over the past three months, confirms that Sanders doesn't need to worry. "The performance of Theresa has been phenomenal as we've embarked on and completed much of what I've set out to do in my administration," the mayor says.

For her part, Sanders doesn't consider this entire episode a failure. Though she says she's learned to be more careful in what she says, she doesn't have any regrets. Long term, she thinks this will result in better, clearer policies being developed regarding how to handle complaints.

She worries, however, about the collateral damage from the scandal, that if employees know every sexual harassment allegation must be investigated, women may be less likely to come forward with concerns. She says the tone of the print media stories has been "somewhat malicious and salacious," and bristles at the extent of Washington state's public records laws that have made recent stories possible.

Coming from a corporate environment, she believes that the public, frankly, doesn't need to know certain things about what's going on inside the city government.

"It's come down to as an employee of the city, at any level, you have no privacy with regard to your employment," Sanders says. "Nobody wants to open themselves up to the level of scrutiny that elected officials get. ... I don't think the world needs to know all of the gory details of the challenging personnel issues that we face."♦

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