Why hiring two recent Parks Department positions was so controversial behind the scenes

by

Jon Moog was not a controversial pick for the Riverfront Park director — but the process to hire him was. - YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
  • Jon Moog was not a controversial pick for the Riverfront Park director — but the process to hire him was.

Jon Moog, the recently hired Riverfront Park director, wasn't a controversial pick for his job. Neither was Fianna Dickson, the recently hired Division Communications Manager.

But the journeys to picking them? Now, those were controversial. 

In fact, last October, when Park Board President Chris Wright wanted to talk about his feelings about how the city administration was handling hiring, he intentionally avoided speaking about it in front of the entire board, worried his statements would be too inflammatory.  

Instead, he brought it up at October's Park Board Finance Committee meeting. "We've had two instances this year the 'exempt' process was being used by this administration to serve some agenda that I think is not in the best interest of the citizens of Spokane or the Parks Department," Wright said. “The administration’s conduct this year on hiring has been disingenuous at best." 

Let's take each controversy separately. 

CREATING DIVISIONS


First, some context. Spokane Parks and Recreation is unique in a weird way. Three independent governing bodies — the city administration, the City Council and the Park Board — control the Parks Department. As a result, the direction can sometimes turn into a three-way tug of war. 

Years ago, Chris Wright opposed turning the Parks and Recreation Department into a “division,” handing the city administration broader powers to hire and fire. 

He worried a mayor would use that power for filling “political appointments, or make hiring decisions that are not necessarily in the best interest of the Parks Department.” 

“I regret to say that this year has amply demonstrated my concerns are becoming a reality,” Wright said in October. Wright's wife, City Councilmember Karen Stratton, has also been vocal about her concerns about the mayor's hiring and firing powers.

Back in 2013, when the Park Board was asked to weigh in on making more positions "exempt"  — giving the mayor the power to hire and fire those positions at will  — board member Susan Traver was also concerned. She was worried about the mayor swooping down into departments to make unilateral decisions, elaborating that some future mayor could "come down into the organization for whatever reason and put someone in or release them." 

"She has been told by other Park Board members that it would never it would never happen and would be an anomaly," meeting minutes say. "She has been on the board for almost three years and anomalies happen all the time."

Human Resources Director Heather Lowe assured Traver that the mayor wouldn't micromanage in that way. 

"He has made it very clear that reaching down into each of our departments is not something that he has time to do," Lowe said, according to minutes. "He is not making those decisions alone, without allowing a process with Heather and the department director."

Similarly, Parks Director Leroy Eadie said that, under the proposal, the city would advertise future division manager positions and involve Park Board members in the interviews.

MAYORAL VETO 

Wright's first frustration came last year, during the attempt to hire a Riverfront Park director. In November of 2014, Eadie had announced that Parks and Recreation was recruiting for the position and hoped to fill it by the end of the year.

But the position wasn't filled until more than a year later. The reason? The mayor's office rejected the selection panel's first choice.

Early last year, a selection panel recommended giving Sam Song, Riverfront Park’s interim director, the position permanently. City Council President Ben Stuckart says he sent a letter to the mayor's office supporting the recommendation. The parks department has bragged to the state that, as a direct result of Song's leadership, "Riverfront Park year-end financials of 2014 show a 50 percent improvement in the bottom line compared with the previous two years."

But the mayor’s office vetoed hiring Song.

It was a decision that delayed the hiring of a Riverfront Park director by months and resulted in the city paying $22,000 for a headhunting firm to conduct a national search.

"I think the reasons that were given were thin," Wright said. "I would use a stronger word, but I'll stay with thin." 

He said the administration claimed that they needed someone with more marketing experience. But considering the administration ended up hiring a division communications manager to focus on marketing, he didn't believe that rationale made a lot of sense. Eadie, however, says the mayor was looking for someone with more experience in general. 

“I would request that the administration suspend the current search for the Riverfront Park Director” and select Song, Wright said in an October finance meeting. "I don't think there is any point in opening up that position again."

Yet today, Wright says the ultimate decision to instead hire Jon Moog — with a deep résumé, including positions at SeaWorld San Diego, Happy Hollow Park & Zoo in San Jose, California, and the City of San Jose — was the right one. And Moog does have marketing experience, though he doesn't specifically remember being asked about it during his interviews. 

But while Wright is satisfied with the result, some on City Council — the third rope in the three-way parks department tug-of-war — have a different sort of complaint about how his hiring was handled. 

Moog says he got the offer in December, with the caveat that the council still had to approve it. But the council only got a chance to approve it in March, after Moog already had moved to Spokane, bought a house and began working on the city payroll. Moog says he's unsure whether he would have had to pay the city back for moving expenses if he was rejected by the council.

If the council had decided to reject Moog, Councilwoman Candace Mumm says, it would have put everyone in a very awkward situation. 

“I have a lot of questions about the sequences of events for that hiring,” Mumm says.

COTTON PICKING

Wright's other complaint, meanwhile, has received a lot more attention. 

In April, Police Department Spokeswoman Monique Cotton was transferred to the Parks Department and given an unusual $9,000 raise. City Administrator Theresa Sanders said the big raise was an "enticement." She answered, “not that I am aware of" when asked if there were difficulties between Cotton and Police Chief Frank Straub. 

These were lies. 

“We had a situation where we clearly needed help in communications and marketing,” Wright said in the October meeting. “I think a person was brought over for a reason that had very little to do with parks and everything to do with serving other needs in the administration.”

Back then, Wright knew Straub had been fired, and Wright knew that Straub's management style had played a part in Cotton being transferred. 

He didn't yet know the full story. It took another month for journalists to uncover the full story: Cotton had complained to the mayor that she’d been sexually harassed by then-Police Chief Frank Straub. She didn’t want a sexual harassment investigation — she wanted a new job. Mayor David Condon gave it to her.

The revelations created a surreal situation where Cotton was sending out press releases to journalists about Riverfront Park, but refusing to comment when journalists asked about her very serious allegations against the former police chief. 

“I had no qualms about whether she was qualified or not. My concern, always, from the beginning of the process with the communication manager, was whether or not there was an attempt to put a position in our budget without consulting us, as a board.” Wright says today. “There was also a concern about whether or not the position was temporary, permanent, exempt, what have you.” 

Wright says it was made very clear that Cotton's position was a temporary job, not a job where Parks needed to go through the official process — with advertising and board interviews. (That isn't how Cotton's attorney, Bob Dunn saw it. He's argued to the Inlander Cotton's agreement with the city was for a permanent position.) 

The aftershocks of Cotton's transfer are still reverberating. Beyond Straub's lawsuit, the ethics commission hearings and the independent investigation, there's the matter of Nancy Goodspeed — who Cotton had effectively replaced — suing the city for $1 million. 

Goodspeed was on Family Medical Leave undergoing brain surgeries to treat Parkinson's disease when Cotton was made the division communications manager.  

"Ms. Goodspeed discovered that she was effectively demoted to being an assistant to her former position," Kevin Roberts, Goodspeed's attorney, wrote in the claim. "Not only did the city refuse to restore Ms. Goodspeed to her former position with the same duties, her medical information was shared with other employees in violation of HIPPA and common decency."

He compared her case to the $230,000 jury verdict won by Liane Carlson in 2014. 

"The City kicked Ms. Goodspeed when she was down because it thought she was weak and unable to protect itself," Roberts wrote. "Ms. Goodspeed simply did not know that during the time she was preparing for and enduring surgery, that her job was being offered up as part of political maneuvering."
 
Cotton's attorney, meanwhile, has argued that Cotton has been the victim of political maneuvering.

Eventually, Wright got what he wanted: An open hiring process to fill Cotton’s communications manager position. But faced with the prospect of reapplying for her own job, Cotton resigned. 

"She complained about the sexual harassment; they moved her into a job that wasn’t permanent. Lo and behold the job she thought she was supposed to have, because she came forward, [wasn't guaranteed,]" Dunn told the Inlander. "She wanted to be employed by the city. And she was, until the Park Board got their britches in a twist and decided they wanted to make her an example... She’s without a job. She’s subjected to emotional distress and derision, [because of] all sorts of interplays between powermongers."

Note: Publisher Ted S. McGregor Jr. sits on the Spokane Park Board and by Inlander policy he doesn't edit columns, news stories or blogs involving any park business.