A legal battle is erupting over a Spokane County seating chart, charges of nepotism and the alleged withholding of public records.
The Spokane Neighborhood Alliance, helped by the nonprofit Center for Justice, contends it has evidence that one of Commissioner Phil Harris’ sons may have been promised his county job before it was even advertised.
The group is demanding access to public records that it says the county refuses to supply.
County officials, however, say they’ve given the Neighborhood Alliance all the records they have on the subject.
The dispute has reached such a heightened level that the two sides are now threatening legal action against each other.
In an Oct. 7 letter to the county, Center for Justice Executive Director Breean Beggs warned that the Neighborhood Alliance could file a lawsuit over the documents and that the county could be fined.
Chief Civil Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Jim Emacio shot back, suggesting in an Oct. 14 response that apologies are in order for “challenging the integrity of County employees.” That letter threatened that any legal action from the Neighborhood Alliance will force the county to countersue, which could lead to considerable legal fees assessed against the alliance.
It’s a complicated battle that began in February when someone anonymously mailed a Spokane County Building and Planning Department seating chart to a Neighborhood Alliance member.
The alliance is now fighting with Spokane County officials over requested public records regarding that seating chart, which places an unknown “Steve” in the Building and Planning Department.
Neighborhood Alliance Director Bonnie Mager said she believes the February seating chart refers to Stephen Harris, Spokane County Commissioner Phil Harris’ son, who was hired in March by the county.
Because the seating chart was created before that position was posted for applicants, Mager said it may prove that Harris was promised the job because of his connections rather than being given it because of his qualifications.
“The name’s on there before the job has even been posted – big red flags,” said Beggs.
Harris doesn’t sit in the location in question on the seating chart.
Mager and the Center for Justice, however, say the county isn’t giving them all the records they requested regarding the chart, and furthermore are questioning why one computer document was altered.
A computer log shows that file was modified on an earlier date than it was created.
“I think it’s very peculiar, and we need to get to the bottom of it,” said Mager.
“It’s not an allegation of wrongdoing,” said Beggs. “The question is who did it and why?”
The explanation is simple, said Spokane County Information Systems Department Director Bill Fiedler: The “created on” date was automatically changed when Building and Planning Assistant Director Pam Knutsen’s computer files were moved to a new computer as part of a regular system of upgrades. That act changes all of the computer’s “created on” dates to the date of the move.
That’s a different explanation from that given by county legal staff to Beggs.
In a letter to Beggs, Emacio explained that the data was moved between two servers as part of the county’s routine computer maintenance.
Emacio later corrected that assertion, and Fiedler said the discrepancy was unintentional – a member of his staff had assumed the date change was caused by a server switch.
The difference between a server switch and a computer switch does have implications when it comes to the data.
Had the information been stored on a central county server rather than Knutsen’s computer, it may have been possible to get the actual date the file was created from a backup file, said Fiedler.
There is no such file for individual county computers, he explained.
Both Emacio and Knutsen take umbrage at Beggs’ suggestions in a letter to the county that the data overwrite may have been an intentional act to hide information.
“There’s no way. I’m not going to go and do something and jeopardize my career,” Knutsen said.
The computer was upgraded in late April, before the Neighborhood Alliance filed its records request.
To complicate matters, there were two Steves on the seating chart. When asked this week about the chart, Knutsen said one of the Steves it referenced is Steve Davenport, a longtime county planner. But Davenport’s extension is listed by a second reference to Steve on the page.
Knutsen said that the seating chart was a work in progress and more for the purpose of arranging cubicles than where to put individuals.
Several other seating charts have duplicate names on them as well, she said, adding that when two people with the same first name were listed, one would be identified with a last name initial.
Another name on the seating chart in question, “Ron,” did refer to a real person who was not working for the county at the time but was hired later.
Ron Hand was laid off when Spokane Valley incorporated and the county cut back on building and planning staff. His position was posted, and he was rehired after the chart was created.
That’s because he obviously had the experience for the job, Knutsen said.
There are other issues in dispute related to the difference between using public records law to ask for information versus records.
Emacio said that the Neighborhood Alliance is asking for information about who the Steve and another name on the seating chart are – not records – and public disclosure laws don’t mandate that the county give out information not contained on records.
Beggs agreed that public records laws don’t allow people to ask governmental bodies questions, but said he and the alliance are asking for records, not simply answers.
“They’ve never said, ‘We don’t have those documents,’ ” Beggs said, adding, “It’s pretty clear they don’t want to give those records.”
Commissioner Harris said the county isn’t hiding anything.
“We’re clean as a hound’s tooth. We’ve given them everything we have,” Harris said.