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by Kevin Taylor & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he high-stakes hunt for a new police chief could begin as early as next week, now that Spokane Mayor Dennis Hession has filled the final slots on the five-person search committee.

The committee members are deputy mayor Jack Lynch; City Council President Joe Shogan; Yvonne Lopez-Morton, who helps administer the Safe Schools program for the Spokane School District; Marty Dickinson, president of the Downtown Spokane Partnership; and former police union boss Cliff Walter.

At least one voice says slow down. Sheriff Mark Sterk, set to retire March 31, believes it's time to discuss consolidation of the police and sheriff's departments. "I have always been an advocate of a metropolitan police agency throughout Spokane County," Sterk says. "I think it's time for the community to have that discussion. We struggle with resources all the time. Look at the budget the city is struggling with right now. I think [consolidation] can provide a remedy to keep more officers on the streets."

Sterk says he has regularly pitched a receptive county commissioner, Phil Harris, on the idea, and he's trying to set up a meeting with Hession to discuss consolidation. A consolidated force should have an elected sheriff in charge, says Sterk: "Nationally, I think the tenure of a police chief is three years. That doesn't bring stability to a law enforcement agency."

Former police chief Roger Bragdon was an anomaly, spending his entire career in Spokane and rising from graveyard shift officer to chief in 32 years. Given Bragdon's tenure and respect, tensions have been building in the vacuum left by his retirement six weeks ago. "There are at least five factions," says one law enforcement source, who wished to remain anonymous.

Before he retired, Bragdon had pushed for the city to promote assistant chief Jim Nicks quickly, saying that only an in-house candidate could navigate the tightrope of maintaining high service standards in the wake of deep budget cuts the last few years.

Nicks, however, dropped out a couple of weeks ago, citing family considerations. Several officers have since informally expressed interest in sitting behind the chief's desk, Hession says.

Deputy Chief Al Odenthal, the department's other senior manager, is the only one so far to be explicit about his interest, sending a letter to Hession.

In the wake of Nicks' pullout, Hession says the city will conduct a national search.

"I felt, particularly with this position, the process be handled with credibility so we can face the citizens and say we found the best person to run this department," Hession says.

That doesn't rule out Odenthal or any other local candidate, Hession says. "If you don't look outside, you don't know what's out there," the mayor says. "I have had the experience where we looked outside for a candidate and found the gem we were looking for on the inside."

The last time the city conducted a national search for a police chief, in 1999, it was a fiasco. Alan Chertok, a seemingly hot commodity and rising star, was hired from the East Coast and lasted nine months before being asked to resign.

Chertok, now practicing law in the Tri-Cities, has praise for the department and says his problems came from outside the force. He declined to be more specific, but several current and former police figures point the finger at former city manager Bill Pupo for bailing on Chertok at the first sign of trouble and leaving the new chief with no City Hall support.

"The Alan Chertok process is not something the department wants to go through again," Nicks says. The flaw, he says, was in not hiring a "headhunter" to come up with candidates.

The search committee that found Chertok did its own hunting for candidates.

Police departments seek chief candidates in a myriad of ways, Chertok says. Hiring a headhunter is expensive, but could be worth the money as long as a city is clear about what it's looking for.

The flaw with do-it-yourself candidate searches, Bragdon says, is too many people on the committee can have too many agendas. He feels this was a flaw in the Chertok process, in which "some wanted the opposite of [previous chief] Terry Mangan, some said hire a black, some said hire a woman," instead of all focusing first on candidates with the skills to handle a complex job.

Hession lists four qualities in a chief, Bragdon five, but they are similar in essence: The new chief must be a cop's cop and win the respect of officers on the street; the new chief must be an able cabinet-level administrator and learn how to manage the political levers at City Hall; the new chief must have the sort of personality to engage citizens and be approachable; and the new chief must be a budget wizard capable of making miracles out of shoestrings.

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