Tuesday AM Recap 8/22/11: Ombudsman & Alcohol Impact Area

After weeks of consultations and discussions the Council last night agreed to draft a letter requesting that PERC (Public Employment Relations Commission) clarify the jurisdictional issues regarding the recent arbitrator’s decision that concluded the City Council must repeal the 2010 ordinance that gave the Spokane Office of the Police Ombudsman increased powers, including that of independent investigative authority. In unanimously embarking on this course of action the Council also decided to withdraw Councilman Rush’s resolution to appeal the arbitrator’s decision and defer Council President Shogan’s legislation to repeal 2010 ordinance until September 26. The intent was to give PERC time to respond to our letter. We expect to have the letter completed in the next two days.

If you saw the testimony last night it is clear (and it has been clear to me all along) that the public’s desire for a strong Police Ombudsman with investigatory power has not lessened one bit from when we passed the ombudsman ordinance unanimously last year. Thank you to everyone who testified and to those who have worked hard to stay constructively engaged on this issue. The legal history and details of the Office of the Ombudsman are long and complex. I will attempt to summarize possible outcomes from this point as I see them:

– If we send out letter to PERC and they agree there is a jurisdiction issue they could decide to directly hear the Guild’s unfair labor practice complaint. If they do this the outcome may or may not be different. If they uphold the arbitrator’s jurisdiction the arbitrator’s ruling will stand.

– If the arbitrator’s ruling stands the Council can appeal to superior court, but only on very narrow grounds.

– The Guild and the Mayor could still come an agreement on bargaining the Ombudsman’s expanded powers. Testimony last night encouraged the Council not to approve any contract that didn’t include expanded Ombudsman powers. I will not speculate on what the Council might or might not do regarding labor contracts because that could invite another unfair labor practice complaint. I will say that my understanding of the law is that if a new contract is not approved both parties are required to continue under the provisions of the current contract.

– In the event of an impasse the Council could seek a legislative remedy from the state legislature to allow the Ombudsman expanded power.

– A citizen’s initiative could could be brought forward with the changes the Council passed in 2010. If passed such an initiative may or may not have a different legal standing in the eyes of the law than the Council’s 2010 action.

It’s important to remember that we are the only City in the state of Washington with a Police Ombudsman. Seattle has an Office of Police Accountability, with an auditor, a citizens board, and more staff and resources than we could ever muster in Spokane. King County has ombudsman office that covers not just law enforcement, but the entirety of County operations. Having a concise police accountability mechanism centered around a single ombudsman is a workable solution for mid-size cities and counties and if we can find a way to make it work we will havde one of the few such offices in the country.

In a separate issue also related to Spokane Police, the Council voted unanimously to hire a separate attorney to represent Assistant Chief Nicks in the Otto Zehm civil trial, in which the City of Spokane is defendant. This whole situation is also extremely complex. A few things to keep in mind:

– The City is obligated to indemnify employees for non-criminal actions occurring during the course of their duties for the City. Nicks was acting chief at the time of the Otto Zehm incident. We are not obligated to pay for attorney’s to defend employees in criminal cases–which is why we are not paying for the criminal defense of Officer Thompson.

– The judge in the Otto Zehm civil case has issued a stay, the intent of which–as I understand it–is to prevent a settlement until the federal Otto Zehm criminal case, in which officer Thompson is a defendant, is completed. That case will go to trial in October.

– One of the main reasons this issue has come up now is that earlier this month Mr. Thompson’s attorney took action to exclude Nicks testimony on the grounds that he was not an expert witness.

It’s like peeling back layers of an onion. I hope this sheds some light on Council actions. It’s certainly not easy to follow at times.

And those weren’t the only high profile actions we took last night. The Council also unanimously passed the expansion of the East Central Alcohol Impact Area to include South Perry and further east to the City limits. These new areas will become voluntary for six months, and then if the data collected can show the need, the City will petition the Liquor Control board to make the areas mandatory. This would prohibit the sale of high alcohol, low cost malt liquor products that, in recent years have become much more potent (23 oz, 12% abv for only $1.29), much more marketed, and often include fruity flavors and color packaging that resembles soft drinks. This action comes on the heals of a successful alcohol impact area in downtown Spokane and others on the westside including Seattle and Tacoma. Once the mandatory AIA goes into effect the City will be required to make an annual report to the liquor control board to demonstrate that it is creating the desired affect–specifically that of reducing the community impacts of chronic inebriation.

I want to thank everyone who testified on the AIA last night, including Jerry Numbers of the East Central Neighborhood Council, Deb Conklin of the South Perry Business and Neighborhood Association, Jen Hansen at the Spokane Regional Health District, all the folks from the East Central Neighborhoods Matter group, LaVerne Biel from the East Spokane Business Association, among others. This action also would not have happened without the hard work of Officer Max Hewitt, Carly Cortright of the Spokane Police Department, and Mike Piccolo of the City Attorney’s office. I would also like to thank the alcohol licensees who participated in this process and helped us get to a more fair policy, including the owners of the South Perry Hico, who were the only licensees to testify last night.

In other business the Council approved an alley vacation, a targeting system for the police firing range, and a local improvement district to pave an alley on the North side. The local improvement district was the only action the Council took that was not unanimous. Councilmember Apple stated he would not vote for LIDs that don’t have at least a 2/3 majority.

Downtown, Neighborhoods

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