The Adams County public works director is a casualty of political feuding in the rural county west of Spokane.
Richard Owings resigned Monday, saying he had become “increasingly resentful” of the county commissioners’ diversion of $140,000 in road funds for other purposes - including paying half the salaries of the three commissioners and their clerk.
His March 3 letter of resignation is a harsh criticism of the commissioners, who are also feuding with Adams County Prosecutor David Sandhaus.
“Your diversion of County Road funds to pay for 1/2 of your salaries and operating expenses, and that of your clerk’s as well, is not lawful,” Owings wrote.
“We read the law differently,” Commissioner Bill Wills said Monday.
But Owings is right, Washington state’s assistant audit director said.
“We never gave them authority to do this. This has come up before, and the attorney general has been consistent about use of road funds for salaries. The answer is no,” said Keith Lougheed.
The commissioners decided to divert $140,000 in road funds last year to pay for half the commission budget, said Commission Chairman Shawn Logan.
“That’s because we spend at least 50 percent of our time on road issues. We have a lot of roads with problems,” Logan said.
A December 1996 state audit didn’t tell commissioners they couldn’t use the road money, Logan said.
The 1996 audit only covered the county’s 1995 activities, Lougheed said.
“If we had been asked, we would have told them they could not do this,” he said.
The rural commissioners have violated state law before.
They tried to increase their own salaries a week after last November’s general election - and then had to rescind their action because it was illegal, according to a ruling by the state attorney general.
The commissioners continue to pay half their $22,500-a-year salaries with road funds, Owings said.
“There have been two attorney general opinions that that’s not lawful,” he said.
State law says money paid to any county from the motor vehicle fund must be spent on roads, bridges, wharfs, ferries and “for the operation of the county engineering office, and for any other proper county road purpose.”
In 1963 and 1972 opinions, the state attorney general’s office said it isn’t legal for counties to supplement their salaries with road fund money.
Recently, Prosecutor Sandhaus also complained about the commissioners’ use of the road money.
“I’ve reported this illegal expenditure of road funds to the attorney general’s office,” Sandhaus said Monday.
Owings, 65, is leaving at the end of March. He plans to retire and perhaps farm. He owns an interest in a vineyard in Franklin County.
An Idaho native, Owings had a 26-year career as a sales manager with Union Oil. Before serving as public works director for three years, he was the county’s planning director.
In that job, he clashed with garbage giant Waste Management Inc. over plans for a regional garbage dump near Washtucna. Owings pushed the county to hire a consultant to do an independent hydrogeology study of the proposed dump.
That stance earned him the displeasure of two of the commissioners, who supported the garbage mega-dump.
Adams County politics are increasingly dysfunctional, Owings said. “‘The issues I’ve raised are only the tip of the iceberg.”
“I don’t think it’s nearly as bad as he’d lead others outside the county to believe,” he said.
His resignation “was a surprise to us,” Logan said Monday. “Dick has done a good job in a lot of areas - although he’s chosen to say negative things about us.”
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