Kootenai County commissioners have come to the aid of an ironworks owner who was fined nearly half a million dollars in a 10-year battle with regulators.
Commissioners have threatened to cut funding to the Panhandle Health District, accusing it of “vindictive retaliation and personal agendas” in going after John Hern Jr., owner of Hern Ironworks.
Hern’s problems started several years ago after regulators learned there had been dozens of building, zoning, health and environmental code violations at his 32-acre Atlas Road site.
In a letter to district Director Larry Belmont this week, commissioners said the district has enforced the law overzealously - even while acknowledging that a judge had fined Hern $495,000 for his refusal to cooperate.
Commissioners said the district is trying to bankrupt Hern’s industrial park, which “incubated 30 small businesses with a combined total of 150 jobs and (which brought) over $1 million income into this county.”
Belmont denied the allegations and said commissioners are politicizing a legal issue.
“Right now, I’m concerned that the political process has usurped the judicial process,” he said.
Commissioner Ron Rankin acknowledged that the letter was an “unprecedented” move and said it has nothing to do with Hern’s contributions to his and Commissioner Dick Compton’s election campaigns.
As a result of the letter, Belmont said, the district won’t ask Hern to pay wages for inspectors who have spent years trying to get Hern to follow environmental regulations.
Commissioners had threatened to cut health district funding by an amount equal to what it sought from Hern in spent wages. At issue was about $20,000.
The health district shouldn’t collect money from a taxpayer “for doing its job,” said Rankin.
Commissioners also criticized a move by the district to ask Hern to sign a “consent agreement.” That form would have required Hern not to fight officials the next time they charged him with violating health codes.
Belmont, however, said the whole episode reflects that “Hern’s violations were without parallel.”
During the 1980s, Hern built dozens of steel sheds with building permits that banned their use for anything but storage. Instead they housed several businesses.
He refused to allow regulators on his property for a routine inspection until they obtained a court order. He was the only one of 700 area businesses who refused to respond to a letter asking for a list of the potentially dangerous chemicals stored on his site.
The Health District filed suit two years ago, asking the judge to fine Hern up to $1,000 a day until he complied with the rules.
After a decade of battles, Hern brought the site into compliance in 1995.
But last fall district Judge Craig Kosonen assessed Hern $495,000 for the years of delays. It is believed to be the largest fine of its kind in Pacific Northwest history.
The judge gave Hern 14 days to file a motion to reconsider the penalty. Hern didn’t file one.
This month, Hern, through new attorney John Magnuson, began negotiating with Health District attorney Scott Reed to get the fine lowered. As part of that negotiation, Hern was asked to sign the “consent agreement.”
Reed said commissioners must not understand what prompted the proposal.
“That proposal was made in response to an inquiry by the other side asking what they could do to get that fine lowered,” Reed said. “We aren’t forcing him to sign. It was up to him.”
Rankin maintained that the district was “blackmailing” Hern, trying to get him to “sign his rights away” in return for a break on the fine.
“He has agreed to stay in compliance,” Rankin said. “Has he ever lied before? I don’t think so.”
Commissioner Compton agreed.
“He’s been one who believed no government is good government,” Compton said. “I think he’s learned a valuable lesson.”
Commissioners were standing up for Hern because “he’s a taxpayer of this county and it looks like they’re trying to drive him out of business,” Rankin said. He said they would have done the same thing for a taxpayer who hadn’t given to their campaigns.
Hern and his family gave $800 to Compton’s 1994 election campaign and $100 to his 1996 bid. He gave Rankin’s campaign $100, and the two men attend the same church.
“It has nothing to do with my relationship,” Rankin said.
Regardless, Magnuson appears less worried about Hern’s financial future than the commissioners. He said the ultimate decision on fines against Hern will come from the judge.
“I’m assessing all his available arguments,” Magnuson said. “(Hern) has some available remedies.”
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