Spokane City Council hires councilwoman’s husband as policy adviser

Spokane City Council’s newest policy adviser is familiar to its members, none more so than Councilwoman Karen Stratton.

Christopher Wright, a former attorney who served as Spokane Park Board president and who is also Stratton’s husband, was appointed Monday night as policy adviser by a vote of 4 to 2. Stratton abstained from the vote.

Council members Michael Cathcart and Jonathan Bingle voted against the appointment, but stressed that their dissent was due to concerns with whether the position should exist, not about Wright himself or his connection with Stratton.

On Monday, city spokesman Brian Coddington wrote in a text that Mayor Nadine Woodward has concerns about how the community might perceive the council hiring a member’s spouse.

In an interview prior to the vote, Council President Breean Beggs said the council would rely on the city’s human resources department to establish clear protocols, as it does with other married couples working in the same city department.

In a Jan. 19 study session, Beggs told other council members that it would actually be illegal under state law to not hire Wright for no other reason than who his spouse was. Cathcart, who took part in the interview process that whittled down to Wright from eight applicants, said Wright was clearly the best interviewee.

Wright will be replacing Brian McClatchey – also the husband of a Spokane politician, Lisa Brown – who served in that position from 2015 until July 2022. Wright will be paid around $107,500 per year, not including benefits.

The policy adviser is responsible for providing guidance to the City Council as its members draft local legislation that can pass legal muster. Though the advise policyr is not authorized to provide legal advice like someone from the city’s legal department, they are required to have graduated from law school.

Wright is not a newcomer to work in government and public institutions. His first four years of professional life were spent in the office of the governor of Oregon, working as an ombudsman who processed complaints against state agencies, he said. He first came to Eastern Washington to take a job with Washington State University as a legislative analyst.

Wright served on the Spokane Park Board from 2009 to 2019, and served as president of that body from 2015 to 2018. At the time of his appointment, Stratton was not yet a member of the City Council.

Wright was first licensed to practice law in Washington in 1993 and served on the board of bar examiners – drafting questions for and grading the state bar exam – for four years in the early 2000s.

However, he lost his license in 2020, having voluntarily resigned amid a disciplinary review by the state bar association. As a result, Wright is unable to ever apply to be licensed in the state again.

In five cases between 2015 and 2017, Wright allegedly did not properly represent his clients, including by failing to meet court deadlines or attend hearings, according to disciplinary documents prepared in 2019 by the Washington State Bar Association.

In one instance, after Wright failed to file documents and his client lost their case, he failed to inform them that a judgment had been made in the case, according to the disciplinary documents. The client reportedly only learned they had lost their case after reviewing court documents themselves.

Two clients also reported that Wright stopped responding to calls and emails while still representing them.

Several of those clients sued Wright for malpractice and were collectively awarded around $3 million in damages.

In an interview, Wright said he disputed a few of the allegations leveled against him, but admitted that he had not met his obligations as a lawyer in those cases. He said he had gotten overwhelmed, with his attention split by his work on the park board, his and Stratton’s marijuana farm, and a death in the family.

“There were a lot of things converging at the time that made it easier for me to ignore my responsibilities to my law practice,” he said.

Unhappy with his performance, Wright said he decided not to fight the bar association’s disciplinary review and instead resigned.

Two years after shuttering his practice, Wright said he was looking for a new line of work and felt more suited for something in the public sector. He decided to apply when the position opened last summer.

Wright said he would not repeat prior mistakes in this new position. He’s gone to counseling, he added, and he won’t be splitting his attention between multiple roles.

“I won’t have other distractions. I’m going to just be focused on my job. No family issues, farm issues, park board, any of that,” Wright said.

In an interview before the vote, Beggs said that the circumstances around the loss of Wright’s license to practice law were duly considered during the selection process.

“They were certainly concerning for him as a private lawyer under private practice, but under the structure we have, I wasn’t concerned,” Beggs said.

Though both Cathcart and Bingle took time to make it clear that it wasn’t personal, they both voted against appointing Wright as policy adviser, questioning whether the position should exist at all.

Both members of the Council’s conservative minority said the prior policy adviser had not given equal priority to the legislation they wanted to draft, and questioned the price tag of a staff member they believed primarily served the majority.

“As much as we would like to say we’re going to hire the most impartial person, I have real concerns with impartiality, not based on who anybody is married to but based on historical performance of some of these positions,” Bingle said.

Cathcart 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.

However, that would give the city’s mayor more power over that position, Beggs noted.

“Sometimes there’s a fear, whether perception or reality, that (city staff) have pressure from the administration, who has the ability to hire and fire them,” he said during Thursday’s study session.

Councilwoman Lori Kinnear noted the legal department is often extremely busy, and argued the council needs a staff member who works only for them.

“Some folks may not think we need a person in this position,” Kinnear said. “I worked in the council office both with and without that position, and we are much more effective with this position.”