Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Spokane Planning Director Lisa Key suddenly ousted after city reorganization, some council members object

Posted By on Wed, Mar 14, 2018 at 12:00 PM

Spokane Planning Director Lisa Key suddenly ousted after city reorganization, some council members object
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Lisa Key, the city's planning director, was suddenly laid off from the city last night, as part of a reorganization.

Spokane Planning Director Lisa Key was hired because her predecessor, Scott Chesney, was ousted. But now, Key herself has been ousted in a sudden reorganization.

City council members were informed by Dawn Kinder, who replaced Jonathan Mallahan as the head of the Neighborhood and Business Services division after Mallahan took a job with Catholic Charities.

"In order to most effectively and efficiently complete the work of the Neighborhood and Business Services Division a difficult decision has been made to realign departments to better meet the goals for the city," Kinder wrote in an email to City Council members last night, arguing the changes would help make neighborhood services better aligned with planning and code enforcement and parking services.

click to enlarge Spokane Planning Director Lisa Key suddenly ousted after city reorganization, some council members object (2)
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Dawn Kinder, head of the Neighborhood and Business Services division

But to do that, she wrote, would only require two department heads in neighborhood services instead of three. Heather Trautman, director of neighborhood services and code enforcement, would take on the department, while Kris Becker, director of development services, would head up parking and code enforcement.

"At this time the director of planning, Lisa Key, has been laid off from employment with the city," Kinder wrote. "This has been a difficult decision but one that will lead to a more effective and efficient use of city resources, expertise and capacity, which will lead to improved experiences for those doing business with, participating in public engagement and helping grow our city."

Kinder and Key were not immediately available for comment.

City Spokesman Brian Coddington says the decision was Kinder's.

"The mayor strongly believes that his cabinet members need the flexibility and autonomy to make the decisions to provide the structure that best delivers the best service to the citizens we all serve," Coddington says. "He’s given that dawn that latitude."

But two City Council members expressed major frustration around the choice to lay off Key.

"I completely disagree with this decision," Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart says. "The city municipal code says if you’re going to switch around the departments it should come around budget time."

Stuckart says he was told yesterday, after he came back from an hour and a half meeting with Key and the Spokane Home Builders Association.

"Lisa understood what council’s priorities are," Stuckart says. "I’m worried that everything is going to go south. And we’re not going to make any progress."

And Councilwoman Karen Stratton, who has often criticized the city staffing changes, was livid.

"I’m angry. These are people. These are human beings who take jobs with the city," Stratton says. "They just took a department and shook it up and took away the leader... It’s thoughtless and it’s embarrassing."

She suggested that the sudden change was a violation of the administration's commitment to work with the council on strategic planning.

"To me, in good faith, this should have been an issue that council and administration discussed with their big, fabulous strategic plan," Stratton says. "And it never happened."

Stratton praised Key's performance as both a manager and as someone proficient at working with outside groups.

"To be treated like this, to me, is despicable," Stratton says. "This is ridiculous. This really, really is."

She says she will not support Trautman as Key's replacement.

"Not only did we lose who I think is an excellent planning director, we have no say in the replacement," Stratton lamented. "It’s a done deal."

During its first term, the Condon administration had become known for its sometimes sweeping reorganizations, as even city councilmembers struggled to follow the swiftly changing organizational charts.

In particular, the ousting of Chesney in 2014 resulted in outrage from City Council members and developers. An Inlander investigation turned up records indicating that Chesney's supervisor, then-division director of business and development services Jan Quintrall, clashed with Chesney over everything from promises made to developers to his department's purchasing history.

The media scrutiny around Quintrall's decision ultimately resulted in her resignation.

Last year, it suddenly booted its longtime streets director, Mark Serbousek, without saying why. Records obtained by the Inlander indicated, that Public Works & Utilities Division Director Scott Simmons had expressed frustrations with the streets department that include obstructionism and the lack of "operational excellence" and "employee engagement."

There can be downsides to major changes, even well-intentioned ones, as Becker — new head of Parking and Code Enforcement — has seen first hand.

In response to a 2016 independent investigation, obtained by the Inlander, Becker elaborated on the dangers of sudden reorganizations.

"Our department has undergone a major transformation in the last four years and this has included significant changes in leadership. Mallahan is my fourth supervisor in two years," Becker wrote, arguing the changes had created an environment that was "fearful of yet another major change being thrust upon staff."

Becker had been a huge fan of Quintrall, but also saw how staff reacted negatively to the changes she made.

"She was new to our division and was making significant changes," Becker wrote. "People made assumptions about her which caused a very fearful and toxic environment."

Today, Stuckart argues, is a particularly bad time to be making big changes.

"Reorganizations, you don’t need one in the last year and half of an administration," Stuckart says. "We’re making progress. Everybody’s happy. We have a collaborative approach. Why are we ruining that?"

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About The Author

Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, Daniel Walters is the Inlander's senior investigative reporter. But he also reports on a wide swath of other topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.He's reported on deep flaws in the Washington...