The Mayor’s Ruthless Ruse

David Condon strangled police oversight in Spokane. Now he wants to blame it on state law.  

David Condon came to office in Spokane because of how badly his predecessor botched the issue of police accountability. After sailing through the 2011 primary election, former Mayor Mary Verner energized Condon’s campaign by turning remarkably tone deaf  to rising public anger about police conduct in the Otto Zehm tragedy.

Although Condon was something of a political blank page when he took office, it would have been hard to imagine that he could do any worse than Verner on what, then, was the central issue in city politics.

But he has.

Although it’s hard to grasp the comparatively gentle treatment he’s received from Spokane’s press (including, most recently, a self-refuting, stream of consciousness endorsement  from The Inlander’s Ted McGregor) it’s likely that much of it has to do with Condon’s sunny personality and salesmanship. The Zehm tragedy revealed Verner’s imperious streak, and her stoic tolerance for the blame-the-victim legal work of assistant city attorney Rocky Treppiedi was, in a word, repulsive. Condon, whatever his flaws, is genial and funny. It helped that he delivered upon his promise to see that Treppiedi was fired. It also mattered that when the City, under his direction, moved to settle the lawsuit brought by the Zehm family, he announced the resolution with genuine remorse and compassion.

Spokane Mayor David Condon
Spokane Mayor David Condon

Condon’s charm and endemic positivity will get you somewhere in a nice place like Spokane. A smile can be your umbrella when it barely rains on your parades. But it shouldn’t mean that you should be allowed to undermine the will of Spokane voters with impunity, or tell outright fibs about what you’re really trying to accomplish.

Condon’s failure on police oversight is not about incompetence. Rather, it’s been about purposefully killing a popular reform he quietly opposes, and then blaming others for the resulting public frustration.

The latest from Condon is quite a whopper. It came in response to the Spokesman-Review’s question to all this year’s candidates for city office: “Should the police ombudsman have more power?”

Condon’s reply: “Two pieces. One is I supported the charter amendment to allow this type of oversight. I also, secondly, believe that I negotiated the most independent oversight in the state of Washington. The decision of whether they should have more independence to me is one that we need to take to the state level and change state law. If we did that, I think it would put the parameters on there that would be necessary for that.”

Before I unpack this, let me propose that you don’t have to take my word for Condon’s record or his dishonesty. You can take The Inlander’s word for it. McGregor’s endorsement of Condon includes the pithy truth about the mayor’s work on police oversight: “since being elected, Condon has effectively put the process on an ice floe to die.”

I first wrote about this, in some detail, two years ago, outlining, step-by-step, how Condon purposefully blocked and undermined reforms that he’d made public commitments to support. And it wasn’t offhand. For example, if you watch the short video report in this KXLY-TV story, you’ll see the mayor crashing the end of a press conference I hosted three years ago.

“Exactly what I’m talking about,” Condon proclaimed, trying to align himself with the draft ordinance we’d presented to bring actual independence to police oversight. Yet, the very reason we were there is that Condon had reneged on the promise he’d made nine months earlier to “implement independent investigatory authority for civilian oversight of the police.”

It gets worse.

Condon now tells the paper of record that he supported Proposition 1, the city charter amendment that requires the police ombudsmen to be independent.

This is ludicrous. The reality is that Prop. 1 came about in the weeks following Condon’s cameo appearance at our press conference only because he and his staff continued to block the reform. Indeed, the leadership for Prop. 1 came from Condon’s fellow Republicans on the city council—Mike Allen and Steve Salvatore—because, by early 2013 the two of them were out of patience with the mayor and his city attorney, Nancy Isserlis.

The second part of Condon’s answer to the S-R is equally disingenuous.

The notion that state law has to change in order for Spokane to have independent investigations into citizen complaints is a canard that’s been with us for years. I could shove a pile of past reporting on this issue your way but it reduces to this: at most, what state law requires is that changes in the employee discipline process be part of the collective bargaining process, that they not be unilaterally imposed by management. If there was a genuine argument that the Prop. 1 charter amendment violated state law, you would have heard or read about it in the run-up to the February 2013 special election. You didn’t, because it’s an argument that vaporizes in sunlight. Here, check the voters guide.

But the main issue is this one:

Mary Verner and the Guild went behind closed doors in early 2008 to draft an addition to a collective bargaining agreement that barred the ombudsman from doing independent investigations. Prop. 1 required that these restrictions be lifted; that the collective bargaining agreement no longer be an obstacle to independent oversight.

Condon’s opportunity to do that was in 2013, in the months after the charter amendment was approved, and while the City was in negotiations with the Guild on a new contract (it expires at the end of next year). Despite the Prop. 1 mandate, Condon and his negotiating team did nothing. They proposed no substantive changes to the contract other than to state in their new agreement (and this is darkly funny) that it complied with all the requirements of the new charter amendment. Seriously. This is how low an opinion the mayor and the guild leadership have of the public and of the attention span of Spokane media.

Condon is not the only sitting elected official who has failed to deliver on the popularly ratified charter amendment. But he was in the best position, by far, to get it done. The record couldn’t be clearer that it didn’t get done. And it didn’t get done because he didn’t want it to get done. End of story.

–Tim Connor
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