Spokane City Council says HR can't decide to investigate Spokane City Council anymore

click to enlarge Spokane City Council says HR can't decide to investigate Spokane City Council anymore (3)
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After learning HR was looking into bullying allegations against them, City Council President Ben Stuckart and other council members told HR it doesn't have the authority to conduct an investigation into City Council members.

It's not the first time a Spokane City Council member or member of their staff has been under investigation from the city's Human Resources Department.

This month, City Council members are again the subject of a human resources inquiry. According to the Spokesman-Review, council members Ben Stuckart, Karen Stratton, Candace Mumm and Kate Burke were sent letters from HR about concerns that they'd been bullying employees during public meetings.

But this time, instead of eagerly cooperating, the Spokane City Council is urging the investigation to be shut down. Instead, they say, council members should be the ones to determine how their peers or employees are investigated.

"There is no authority in the Spokane City Charter or the Spokane Municipal Code for the mayor or designee of the mayor to investigate a Spokane City Council member or a staff member of the Spokane City Council," explained the City Council letter. "We request you immediately terminate the investigation commenced by the administration, and instead refer the substance of the alleged complaints to the council president pro tem, so that the City Council can exercise its legal autonomy by determining how best to respond to the complaint, including any necessary investigation or action."

Council members voted unanimously to send that letter to the City Attorney's Office on Monday.

No, says Chris Cavanaugh, Spokane's human resources director. The city HR department won't be shutting down the inquiry into City Council members' behavior.

Cavanaugh points out that the city administration can't force the legislative branch to participate in any investigation or fact-finding effort. But similarly, she says, the City Council can't demand that human resources shut down a fact-finding effort sparked by city employee concerns.

"We will do what we need to do to protect the employees in the executive branch," Cavanaugh says. "It’s human resources' responsibility to gather the information by people who are employed by the mayor."

City Councilman Breean Beggs, however, argues that the intent of the council's letter wasn't to say that HR could never investigate the City Council, just that it would be up to the City Council members who weren't subject to accusations to decide who could investigate the complaints, and how.

"All the City Council members agree that any complaints that are filed against council members need to be investigated," Beggs says. The question is, he says, by whom?

Either way, in this recent case, Cavanuagh says, there hasn't actually been an official formal full-scale human resource investigation initiated.

"We have had employees come forward and share with us concerns," about City Council members, Cavanaugh says.

And right now, she says, the city is in its "information gathering" or "fact-finding" stage.
There wasn't an officially signed formal complaint, Cavanaugh says.

"I requested that we not have one," Cavanaugh says. "This is an issue with behaviors that we can deal with at the lowest appropriate level and try to resolve them."

And yet, in the layperson's sense of the word, there is an investigation at some level. Cavanaugh hired an outside attorney from Bellevue to look into the concerns.

"There are members of the council that are not real comfortable with me personally," Cavanaugh says, explaining the decision to bring in an outside fact-finder. "I think it’s appropriate for someone who is not even from the city of Spokane, to come in and independently [look at the concerns.] "

Eventually, a report will be completed, Cavanaugh says, and the City Council can decide how to handle it.

"That information we gather will be provided to the decision-makers involved," Cavanaugh says. 

She points out there's plenty of precedent for these actions.

"We are going to send a letter back to the council today, reminding them that we have, in fact, engaged on their behalf over the last few years on a few behavioral concerns with the council and behavioral concerns with the judicial branch," Cavanaugh says.

Here are just a few examples the Inlander identified:
  • Bob West, a clerk in the city's probation office, part of the judicial branch, lost his job after a human resources investigation determined that he had used public resources for campaign activities.

    “The case has been settled with the city of Spokane and myself,” says West. “All claims have been absolved.”

  • City Councilwoman Karen Stratton faced a bullying accusation from an employee who worked in the Community, Housing, & Human Services Department, due to the fallout from an Inlander story about the potential conflicts of interest between city officials and the Human Resources Department.
  • In 2016, City Council President Ben Stuckart went to HR after a neighborhood activist raised concerns that Spokane City Council legislative aide Richard Rush had sexually harassed her. Initially, HR concluded that city policy hadn't been violated — the woman who spoke to Stuckart wasn't a city employee and the incident wasn't at a city event. But after HR identified several city employees raising similar issues, Rush was fired.
Burke later revealed that she had been a victim of harassment from Rush as well.

Yet, in the letter from City Council, a different precedent was cited. 

"In the past, when an investigation was needed into the actions of executive branch leadership, the mayor and council collaborated on an independent inquiry by jointly selecting a third-party investigator and a joint council/administrative oversight committee," the letter says. "As a co-equal branch of government, the City Council is owed the same deference here."

Indeed, during the controversy around sexual harassment allegations against former Police Chief Frank Straub,  an independent investigator was chosen by the mayor and the City Council. That's the precedent that Councilmember Candace Mumm says she wants to be followed in the future for investigations of councilmembers. The mayor and the city council would agree upon an outside investigator.

Still, in Stuckart's role as council president during the Straub investigation, he didn't exactly take a back seat. In fact, he publicly called for the mayor to force employees to participate or be fired. He also repeatedly raised the prospect of using the council's subpoena power to force employees to answer questions.

Ultimately, he was even accused of "bullying" by attorney Laura McAloon, for his comments about her role on the joint panel overseeing the investigation.

"I am flabbergasted by the animosity coming from the council president for no logical reason whatsoever," McAloon said then. She ended up withdrawing her name as city attorney because of the conflict.

And how about in 2005, during the Mayor Jim West scandal?

The City Council took over the investigation after a city-attorney-led panel collapsed. It was a classic example of one branch of local government serving as a check on the other.

Stuckart was not immediately available for comment on Thursday. But Councilman Beggs and Councilwoman Burke both say several council members were suspicious about whether the complaints were politically motivated.

"Right now, part of the council thinks this [employee complaint] letter is political," Burke says. "I can only assume the best intent. I assume employees have felt like we're bullying them. I take that complaint very seriously."

Burke says that she voted in favor of the response letter stressing the council's independence because she felt that was proper protocol, not because she was opposed to an HR investigation. She says she would cooperate with any HR investigation and says she wants to know if any aggressive questions of employees were interpreted as bullying behavior.

“I feel there’s a lot of tension between council and employees, for sure," Burke says. She herself approached human resources earlier this year with informal questions about whether Stuckart was bullying her during City Council meetings.

Cavanaugh says that the City Council is welcome to conduct their own investigation if they so choose.

"Then we would give the option to the employees: You have the choice to speak with the person or not," Cavanaugh says. "The same option that the city is giving to the council members we would be giving to the employees: 'It’s completely your choice.'"

Here's the letter the City Council sent Monday:

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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...