In an unfair-labor-practice complaint, the Seattle Police Management Association contends the city was required to bargain before it repealed a 1978 ordinance.

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As Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole moves closer to making widely expected changes in her command staff, a department union asked a state hearing examiner Tuesday to block a new city ordinance that allows O’Toole to hire outside candidates.

In an unfair-labor-practice complaint, the Seattle Police Management Association (SPMA), which represents more than 60 captains and lieutenants, contends the city was required to bargain the change before it repealed a 1978 ordinance that required assistant and deputy chiefs to be hired from among lieutenants and captains inside the Seattle Police Department.

“Those officers have the aspirations to lead the department” with their invaluable knowledge of the city and the department’s operations, Portland attorney David Snyder, who is representing the union, said during the hearing in Seattle before the Public Employment Relations Commission.

But Assistant City Attorney Paul Olsen told the hearing examiner, E. Matthew Greer, that the new ordinance, enacted by the City Council in January 2014 and approved by Mayor Ed Murray, was a crucial element in the search last year for a new police chief to lead a department under a federal consent decree to curb excessive force and biased policing.

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“This is a matter of public trust and of the highest importance to the city of Seattle,” Olsen said of the need for an open and competitive hiring process.

Candidates for police chief would be less likely to apply without the ability to freely form an executive team, Olsen said.

“The city needs outstanding leadership,” he said.

O’Toole, who became chief in June, announced in December that she planned to open the department’s five assistant-chief jobs to competition beginning in January.

She said applications would be accepted from anyone in the department who holds the rank of lieutenant or above, including the current assistant chiefs, and to others nationally, in an effort to attract a “robust pool of external candidates.”

O’Toole is expected to announce her selections within weeks, and it is widely believed she will overhaul the command staff, including at least one selection from outside the department.

Capt. Mike Edwards, president of the SPMA, testified that the ordinance created a chilling effect, limiting the number of eligible inside applicants for the five positions to 18 from a possible 61.

Edwards said the ordinance not only potentially limited promotion opportunities, it created the possibility of demotions of current assistant chiefs to their civil-service rank of captain — with a domino effect bumping other commanders to lower ranks “all the way downstream.”

He said lieutenants and captains who have spent years learning the city’s neighborhoods, working different assignments and shifts and gaining “institutional knowledge” of the department were best suited to become assistant chiefs.

“I don’t believe you can get that view with a fully external candidate,” Edwards said.

He also said O’Toole, with the current command staff, had made significant changes and earned plaudits from the federal monitor overseeing the consent decree.

Past searches for police chiefs weren’t hindered by the 1978 ordinance, Edwards told the hearing examiner.

Edwards said the 1978 action occurred after the hiring that year of Patrick Fitzsimons of the New York City Police Department as Seattle’s police chief, amid concerns about retaining internal leadership.

Under cross-examination, Edwards agreed that assistant chiefs are not represented by the SPMA and are exempt from civil service. He also acknowledged that outsiders could bring expertise and a fresh outlook to the department.

In bringing their complaint, leaders of the union have said they would be willing to accept a few outside hires but only with bargaining that provided a cap on how many.

City Council President Tim Burgess testified that the city, in its desire to attract top candidates for the police-chief job, viewed passage of the new ordinance as “a step in setting the table” for the search.

Burgess, who helped spearhead the ordinance and served on the police-chief search committee, said it was important to signal nationally that Seattle was committed to reform and wanted strong candidates.

Repealing the old ordinance removed an obstacle to reform and rebuilding public trust and provided a new tool for the police chief to hire the best commanders, he said.

O’Toole, while being interviewed for the job, said she was “appreciative the ordinance had been passed and intended to use it,” Burgess testified.

At the time the ordinance was enacted, he said, the council had lost confidence in a department management that had grown “stagnant.”

O’Toole is expected to testify at the hearing on Wednesday, when the proceeding is scheduled to conclude.

The hearing examiner’s ruling will be issued later.