Tue, Jan 24, 2023 11:25 AM
By RaeLynn Ricarte, The Center Square
The Spokane Good Government Alliance is calling out the city council for appointing the husband of one of its members to serve as a policy advisor despite “a history of misconduct.”
“This is nepotism at its finest,” said John Estey, executive director of the coalition of businesses and community members that formed in 2019 to serve as a watchdog group.
“It’s bad enough that [Christopher] Wright is a failed business owner after filing for bankruptcy in 2019, but he also can’t even legally practice law in Washington State. This city council majority is more concerned with giving six figure jobs to political allies and family members than doing the work we sent them there to do.”
In a written statement, Estey contends that Wright’s past has made him unfit to fill the role that pays $107,500 per year, not including benefits. Wright was chosen out of eight applicants to replace Brian McClatchey, the husband of Department of Commerce Director Lisa Brown, who served in that position from 2015 until July 2022.
Estey said the policy advisor position added by the council majority in 2015 is part of a “spending spree” that saw their office budget increase by 175%.
“The continued pattern of this council majority using their positions to politically and personally benefit themselves is unconscionable,” he said. “Spokane Citizens deserve more from their elected officials.”
The vote on Monday to give the advisor job to Wright was 4-2 and Councilor Karen Stratton, who is married to Wright, abstained.
She was unable to be immediately reached for comment about Estey's remarks.
“Why Council President [Breean] Beggs and the city council majority thinks Wright is the best candidate for this position is unexplainable,” said Estey.
Wright is a former attorney who lost his license to practice law in the state in 2020. He was found by the Washington Bar Association to have not properly represented clients between 2015 and 2017. The complaint against him included failure to meet court deadlines or attend hearings, according to disciplinary records.
In one recorded incidence of wrongdoing, Wright failed to file documents that resulted in his client losing a case. He then failed to inform the client that a judgment had been made in the case. The client reportedly only learned about the loss by reviewing court documents.
Two clients also reported that Wright stopped responding to calls and emails while still representing them, records show.
Several clients sued Wright for malpractice and were collectively awarded around $3 million in damages.
“Wright’s history of misconduct shows just how unfit he is to serve in this role,” said Estey. “If Wright was not the husband to council member Stratton, he wouldn’t get this job.”
Despite Wright’s checkered past, the council majority indicated he was the best candidate for the job based on his experience working in government and public institutions.
Joining Council President Breean Beggs in approving his appointment were Councilors Betsy Wilkerson, Zack Zappone, and Lori Kinnear.
“I support this individual,” said Zappone. “I think, by far, [of] all the candidates we worked with he was head and shoulders above everyone else. I’m excited to bring him onboard.”
Wright’s background includes four years in the office of the governor of Oregon, working as an ombudsman who processed complaints against state agencies.
He then took a job as a legislative analyst with Washington State University, which brought a move to Eastern Washington.
From 2009 to 2019, Wright served on the Spokane Park Board and then took the role of president of that body from 2015 to 2018.
At the time of his appointment, Stratton was not yet a member of the city council. She has represented District 3 since 2014.
Council members Michael Cathcart and Jonathan Bingle, the two conservatives on the panel, voted against the appointment. They reiterated that their dissent was based on concerns about even having a policy advisor position, not on Wright’s past or his connection with Stratton. Cathcart went further and said that Wright was the best candidate among the contenders for the job.
Both dissenting councilors expressed concern that the prior policy adviser had not given equal priority to legislation they wanted to draft. They questioned why the city should spend money on a staff member that primarily served the majority.
“I just think there’s a better way and a better model,” said Cathcart.
He proposed funneling more money instead to the city’s legal department, creating a nonpartisan position that could act as an attorney in ways the policy adviser could not.
Kinnear noted that the model preferred by Cathcart had previously been tried but the city’s legal department had been too busy to dedicate enough time to council.
“When the mayor’s staff is overburdened, we don’t get things done,” she said.
During a Jan. 19 study session, Beggs had informed the council that it would violate state law to not hire Wright because of who his spouse is.
The city’s job description for a policy advisor includes assisting councilors in drafting local legislation that meets legal requirements. Although that individual is not authorized to provide legal advice, they must have graduated from law school.
Estey pointed out that Stratton previously “used taxpayers to personally benefit her and her husband’s own interests.” He referenced the city’s Ethics Commission findings that she had violated three different provisions of city code when she wrote a letter to Pasco on City of Spokane letterhead and noted her experience with Lucky Leaf, a cannabis retailer located in downtown Spokane that was looking to expand. Stratton and Wright own a marijuana farm south of Cheney.
“Now, less than four years later, Stratton is using her position as city councilwoman to benefit herself again,” he said. “And what’s worse - the rest of the majority on council are helping her do it.”