On Hold

A late-hour tentative agreement with the Police Guild halts progress empowering the civilian ombudsman

Young Kwak photo
Oversight advocates continue to push for independent investigative powers for Spokane's Office of Police Ombudsman, currently held by Tim Burns.

As citizens streamed forward to the microphone Monday, Councilman Steve Salvatori looked out to the audience and down at his hands, long-faced and exasperated.

"Transparency is awkward until your eyes adjust to the light," Salvatori told the group, carefully choosing his words to explain an ordinance he championed that was now a shell of its former self.

Though Salvatori initially introduced an ordinance that would have granted far-reaching independence to the city's Office of Police Ombudsman, the version approved Monday simply established a citizen commission to oversee the office, putting on hold provisions like the authority to conduct independent investigations of police actions. After 21 months of police contract negotiations and a ballot measure to add the strengthened ombudsman to the City Charter, the move began as an attempt to bypass or speed up secret guild negotiations. Then, late last week, the city administration announced it had reached a tentative agreement with the guild, but wouldn't discuss any details publicly until guild members pass the agreement and it goes to the council for consideration. Councilmembers were briefed in executive session last week about the agreement, leaving them in the awkward position of knowing what the contract grants the ombudsman but not being able to discuss it — even as they voted on an ordinance about the ombudsman.

"This is not where we want to be tonight," said Councilman Jon Snyder. "This is not ideal."

The vote came after a month of shepherding the ordinance through the council process and, the council says, pleas Monday from Police Chief Frank Straub to hold off for fear of upsetting the guild at such a fragile stage. Salvatori also faced criticism for sharing too much about the still-confidential guild contract. After learning the details of the agreement in confidential meetings, Salvatori sought legal advice from local watchdog nonprofit the Center for Justice. Center representatives told the Inlander Friday that Salvatori showed them the part of the agreement outlining ombudsman powers and that it didn't explicitly allow independent investigations, long advocated for by the Center and now outlined in the city charter as a result of February's vote on Proposition 1. (Salvatori says he didn't expect the details of his meeting with the Center to become public.)

Center for Justice representatives railed against the council and city administration Monday night for not doing more to make sure a tentative agreement squared with Proposition 1.

"When this becomes public, you're all going to be suffering with the embarrassment that it did not, and that has cost us time that we didn't have," said the Center's communications director Tim Connor, expressing concerns about the impact of secret negotiations on public trust of the police. "We anticipated everything that has gone on in the last few days, as the guild saw us rushing toward democracy and made sure that we couldn't get there tonight."

Salvatori called Monday's action a "compromise" between those asking him to put off the ordinance altogether and those who want an empowered ombudsman before guild negotiations are finalized.

"I am totally ill-equipped to deal with that kind of process," Salvatori says of closed-door negotiations and confidentiality mandates. "The last thing you expect when you get into office is to have such an elimination of public process ... on things that are policy driven."

Monday's vote leaves everything else outlined in Salvatori's original ordinance — most notably, independent investigative powers for the ombudsman — to a later ordinance, which the council plans to pass at the same time as the guild contract. Stuckart asked councilmembers Salvatori, Snyder and Nancy McLaughlin to start working on that ordinance. He says once the guild approves the agreement, which he expects to happen later this month, he'll schedule three public forums throughout November and early December to hear citizen input on the contract. That could mean an approved contract and an ordinance to go with it by the end of the year.

At Monday's meeting, Peace and Justice Action League Executive Director Liz Moore asked the councilmembers to each make a public pledge that they would reject a guild contract that does not explicitly grant expanded powers. No one took her up on the offer from the dais, but Salvatori says citizens can expect nothing less.

"There'll be hell to pay if we don't come up with independent investigative authority. That's not a secret," Salvatori says. "We have to figure out how we get there." ♦

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About The Author

Heidi Groover

Heidi Groover is a staff writer at the Inlander, where she covers city government and drug policy. On the job, she's spent time with prostitutes, "street kids," marriage equality advocates and the family of a 16-year-old organ donor...