There was a time — just last September — that Mayor David Condon and City Council President Ben Stuckart stood side by side. Together, they responded to the volley of reporters' questions at the press conference announcing the sudden resignation of Police Chief Frank Straub.
When it turned out there was much more to that resignation — including a sexual harassment allegation against Straub that the Condon administration declined to investigate — the mayor and the council joined together again in December, forming a joint committee to hire an independent investigator to dig into what happened.
Last week, that already-tenuous alliance between the mayor and council president fractured in a dramatic way.
"It has gotten worse than it ever has been in the last four-and-a-half years," Stuckart says of his relationship with the mayor.
In one sense, a letter issued by Condon last Tuesday was the rejection of a proposal to hire a new attorney so that investigator Kris Cappel could see confidential city documents.
But in another sense, it was a both-barrels-blazing salvo against the city council president.
The mayor accused Stuckart of "acting outside the appropriate bounds of his office," of "exposing the City and its taxpayers, as well as himself, to legal liability," of asking the mayor to "disregard attorney-client privilege considerations," and of putting "the citizens at risk."
"I have long been convinced that Mr. Stuckart and others have had a political motivation in their criticism of my handling of the matters surrounding Straub," Condon wrote. "I will not aid Mr. Stuckart's political agenda at the expense of the taxpayers."
FORGING AN ALLIANCE
The right-leaning mayor and left-leaning city council president came out of their elections last November wielding mandates — both winning in landslides, both with 63.3 percent of the vote. And yet they've regularly fought in high-profile ways.
Many of the major conflicts centered on perceived communication failures, with the mayor or the council objecting to not being adequately informed about issues like the incentives for the Davenport Grand Hotel or the closure of a police facility near the Spokane Transit Authority. Improving that communication is partly why Condon recently hired his former campaign manager Tyler Whitney as a policy advisor to be a liaison to the council.
Former Councilman Mike Allen says that for the final two years of his tenure, he served as an intermediary between Stuckart and Condon. Last year, both the mayor and the city council considered separate investigations into the Straub situation. But Allen worried that an independent investigation pushed forward by the mayor would have been dismissed as biased, while a council-led investigation would "tear the city apart."
Allen and widely respected Utilities Director Rick Romero worked behind the scenes, trying to convince the mayor and the council president to unite behind a single vision for the investigation. Their solution was a single investigation by a joint committee — two members picked by the mayor and two picked by the city council.
But now, Stuckart says, he's come to believe that a joint investigation may have been a mistake.
"We probably should have just had a council-led investigation," he says.
THE PATH TO COLLAPSE
Until recently, the media-wary mayor has resisted commenting at length about the investigation, citing an agreement to only speak through the joint committee.
"I have made every effort to stay silent throughout the process to protect the integrity and independence of the ongoing investigation," Condon wrote in his letter.
By contrast, Stuckart has repeatedly challenged the mayor publicly over the investigation.
The first time came in February, shortly after Condon brought on Michael McMahon as outside counsel to defend against the $4 million lawsuit Straub has filed against the city. The city attorney's office sent out a letter warning city councilmembers that they could face consequences for discussing information about Straub shared in a confidential "executive session," despite the council waiving that confidentiality in order to speak with Cappel.
Stuckart handed out copies of the letter to the press, angrily condemning it as a blatant threat with a "chilling effect."
The second time came in March, after the Inlander reported that Erin Jacobson — the assistant city attorney who documents suggest had been repeatedly warned about Straub's behavior — was refusing to participate in the investigation. Stuckart shot off a letter to Condon, arguing that the joint investigation's "goal of finding out the truth" would be stymied if the mayor didn't compel city employees to testify. The mayor sent an attorney to reject the idea during a confidential executive session.
Finally, at the end of May, an increasingly frustrated Stuckart lamented in a letter that if Cappel doesn't get to see the documents or conduct the interviews she needs, "the public and Council will never know the truth." He threatened to refuse to renew the city's contract for McMahon — the attorney defending the city against Straub's lawsuit — unless the mayor went along with a plan to allow Cappel to see the confidential documents.
Stuckart asked to meet with the mayor in executive session to discuss it. Instead, the mayor fired off his combative reply last week, accusing Stuckart of "holding ransom" the contract extension.
The city council president fired right back, arguing that Condon's letter contained "blatant lies." He fervently denied the mayor's accusation that Stuckart was attempting to "circumvent the public records process."
Stuckart said that the mayor had wildly mischaracterized the proposal, that the plan wasn't to waive attorney-client privilege entirely, it was to protect Cappel under the same umbrella of privilege as city attorneys.
After seeing the confidential documents, Cappel would produce a supplemental report with the new information. Then the city council could choose to waive attorney-client privilege and release that report.
City spokesman Brian Coddington says that's the mayor's objection: Condon believes giving the city council that power would harm the interests of the city.
"That's silly," Stuckart says. "We're trying to get to the truth of the matter."
Stuckart blames the mayor's reluctance on overcautious attorneys, rather than some potential bombshell.
"I don't think there's some missing '18 minutes of the Watergate tape,'" Stuckart says. "[But] they sure are protecting it like it is."
BRIDGING THE BREACH
The question of whether Stuckart would follow through on his threat to kill the McMahon contract hung over this week's city council meeting, but the result was anticlimactic: The council on Monday unanimously voted for a compromise extending the attorney's contract through July 15.
In the meantime, Stuckart has requested an executive session next week with the mayor and other parties involved with the Straub investigation, meeting face-to-face to figure out how to get Cappel the documents and interviews she's requested.
"After this meeting, we can decide if the city would be better served by a different lawyer," Stuckart says. "And we can hire a firm that agrees with the public's need for transparency."
For now, however, the question is whether the rift between the mayor and council president will hurt the city in other areas.
"One has just got to think, that with all the backbiting and the groin punches going back and forth, that it has probably caused a little bit of tension," Councilman Mike Fagan says. "I've made it a point to not read any of the letters that have been going back and forth. To tell you the truth, man, I'm really not interesting in a pissing contest, period."
Untreated, wounds can fester into grudges: Councilwoman Karen Stratton, for example, says that she hasn't met with the mayor since he endorsed her opponent, Evan Verduin, last year. The Straub controversy has been far more bitterly fought.
"This is a difficult topic, and you're going to have some moments. There are some emotions and passion involved," Coddington says.
He notes that the mayor and council president have continued working together in other areas. Last month, they stood together again at a press conference to announce funding to assist the House of Charity.
"I think there's more we could be doing together if we weren't arguing," Stuckart says. "I think we're stronger when we're all rowing in the same direction."
On that goal, at least, the mayor and council president appear to be in agreement. After two pages of throwing punches, the mayor ended his letter with an outstretched hand, calling on the council "to work collaboratively with [him] for the betterment of Spokane." ♦