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The Terminators 

Why some say the city of Spokane doesn't know how to fire people correctly

click to enlarge FROM LEFT: Mayor David Condon, City Attorney Nancy Isserlis and City Administrator Theresa Sanders are named in a $4 million claim filed by ousted Police Chief Frank Straub.
  • FROM LEFT: Mayor David Condon, City Attorney Nancy Isserlis and City Administrator Theresa Sanders are named in a $4 million claim filed by ousted Police Chief Frank Straub.

Adrian Dominguez can empathize with Frank Straub. Dominguez says that like Spokane's ousted police chief, he too was forced from his position — in his case, a seat on the volunteer ombudsman commission — after what he characterizes as a sham investigation by the city administration.

Dominguez says investigators interviewed him for less than 15 minutes, didn't take any notes and asked less than a dozen questions.

"The process... was anything but fair," he says. "They never told us what we were being investigated for and never told us what the complaints were. They already made up their minds that they wanted the three of us out of there."

Straub, who says he received similar treatment when he was forced out three weeks ago, has filed a $4 million claim (a precursor to a lawsuit) against the city, naming Mayor David Condon, City Attorney Nancy Isserlis and City Administrator Theresa Sanders.

He accuses the city of violating his federal due process rights by releasing two letters from top-ranking police officials without conducting a "name-clearing hearing." The letters allege that officers were frustrated with Straub's profanity-laced emotional outbursts, degradation of officers' character, personal attacks and untruthfulness.

In the claim, Straub's attorney Mary Schultz suggests that the mayor's decision to release the letters was politically motivated, referring to his re-election campaign.

City leaders declined, through spokesman Brian Coddington, to comment on Straub's claim, the investigation into the ombudsman commission and two other personnel decisions. Isserlis and Sanders also did not return repeated calls seeking comment.

The city of Spokane's history of bungling terminations, however, is well established, says Bob Dunn, a local trial lawyer who's won millions of dollars for several former city employees. Dunn says the blame lies with the mayor, the city attorney and city administrator.

"It's not hard to fire employees, you just have to do it the right way," Dunn says. "That seems to be the issue with the city. They haven't figured out how to do it correctly."

Scott Chesney, the city's former planning director, was forced from his position by Jan Quintrall, the former division director of business and development services. Their spat was over developer negotiations, department spending and communication clashes within the department.

His dismissal took many people by surprise, including Chesney himself.

Condon backed Quintrall's decision despite pushback from prominent developers and city councilmembers, who wrote a letter to the mayor in support saying Chesney "turned a culture of 'no' into a culture of 'yes, we can do better.'"

Although Chesney doesn't hold any ill will against the city or the mayor, he regrets what he thinks was lost.

"We serve at the pleasure of the mayor, and when something changes you have to accept those terms," he says. "I'm disappointed to have left. I thought there was work we started that was good, but I chose to leave and get on with my life."

In the case of Scott Stephens, a former assistant chief and 27-year veteran of the Spokane Police Department, the consequences for taxpayers were costlier.

Stephens served as interim police chief until Condon appointed Straub in 2012. Soon after taking the job, Straub demoted Stephens from assistant chief to captain, and the next day he was put on paid administrative leave. Condon promised that the public would be given an explanation within a few weeks.

But more than two months after Stephens was put on paid leave, Condon hired a retired U.S. District judge to oversee the investigation into allegations of comments Stephens made to a co-worker. As the Inlander reported, after hearing of his demotion, in an emotional conversation with a co-worker, Stephens allegedly said he was "going to go home and get a rifle."

Stephens has denied that he made those comments through Dunn, his attorney, and filed a damage claim against the city to the tune of $750,000 for violation of his First Amendment rights, invasion of privacy, wrongful termination and emotional distress.

The city settled with Stephens, and taxpayers were on the hook for $190,000 — about a year's salary and benefits for an assistant chief — in a deal that Condon called "fair for all."

"As we've noticed in the past, if you don't do things with a deliberate approach, with a purposeful method, these cases can be much worse," Condon said after announcing terms of the settlement.

Dominguez, for his part, was one of the original five members of the volunteer Office of Police Ombudsman Commission. A whistleblower complaint by the office staffer claimed that three of its commissioners, including Dominguez, disrespected her. The city launched an investigation, and Dominguez and Kevin Berkompas, who was also named, resigned. The third commissioner, Rachel Dolezal, was forced out. Their departure crippled the commission and further delayed the hiring of a police ombudsman.

"They just wanted us out because the three of us were really vocal and frustrated with the whole process," Dominguez says. "I feel [the investigation] was something by the mayor's office to look like they were doing something, but they weren't doing anything. I'm a volunteer and trying to affect change, but the city was the roadblock in this whole thing."

For Deb Conklin, the current commission chair and a former attorney, what should have been an objective fact-finding investigation into accusations of workplace tension ended up in a one-sided report that didn't follow due process.

First, the investigating agency, Winston & Cashatt, is where Isserlis worked before Condon made her the city attorney. Isserlis is also the chair of the ombudsman selection committee, one source of the commissioners' frustrations.

"It was totally inappropriate to hire the law firm with her former colleagues," Conklin says of Isserlis' decision.

Conklin says the final report also lacks objectivity.

"The report was presented as an objective investigation, and it wasn't," she says. "It was a writing that defended one specific position and presented all the evidence in support of that position."

She points to examples where the report cites accusations made by the complainant as fact without reporting that they were contested in interviews.

For his part, Straub is not trying to sue the city for wrongful termination. He is an at-will employee, which means, like Chesney, the mayor can fire him whenever he wants. The issue, as Straub sees it, is that the city didn't give him a chance to respond to the accusations in the letters. By releasing them, the city damaged his reputation and future job prospects.

The big question for Dunn is whether Straub was actually fired or if he resigned. In a letter accompanying the claim for damages, Schultz, Straub's attorney, emphasizes that he was fired. However, Condon's emailed statement immediately following news of the claim said in part: "We received a signed resignation letter Tuesday morning."

One factor the claim considers is the public records law that determines when a complaint against a public employee can be released. According to local attorney Breean Beggs, complaints, such as the ones in the letters, are generally releasable. The only question is how much redacting is necessary. If a complaint is made but not substantiated, for example, it is still a releasable public document, in general, but the names must be redacted. Complaints found to be true are releasable without redactions.

Schultz argues that Straub had a right to a "name-clearing hearing" before any accusations were released to the public.

"The unnecessary publication of those letters is not allowable because they are completely untested and uninvestigated," she says. "He had no opportunity to address those and try to clear his name before they were released to the public. That's a violation of due process."

She suspects the situation will have ramifications for the city's ability to hire quality employees in the future.

"Any other potential police chief coming into this community is going to look at the way we've treated them," she says. "That's going to be a serious problem for the city." ♦


On the heels of Frank Straub's $4 million claim, mayoral challenger Shar Lichty filed ethics complaints against two of Mayor Condon's cabinet members — one against city spokesman Brian Coddington, the other against City Administrator Theresa Sanders. The complaints stem from shifting explanations for personnel moves within the police department.

Sanders originally told the Spokesman-Review that former police spokeswoman Monique Cotton's $9,000 pay bump was an "enticement" to move to the Parks Department, and that she had no knowledge of issues between Cotton and Straub. Sanders later admitted that she was aware of the problem. Mayor Condon has said the pay increase was not an "enticement."

Coddington denied knowledge of Straub's departure the day after the former chief says he was told he was being forced from his job. When asked by Spokesman reporter Nick Deshais a few hours before the city made the official announcement, Coddington denied knowledge of the ouster, saying: "I have not heard that. I don't believe that's accurate."

"I provided the most current information available when I was asked," Coddington told the Inlander, declining to comment further citing the pending complaint. (MITCH RYALS)

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