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Lawsuit challenges hiring of third Harris son

Wed., May 3, 2006

The Neighborhood Alliance of Spokane County announced Tuesday that it has filed a lawsuit in a case alleging nepotism in the county’s hiring of Commissioner Phil Harris’ son.

The county hired Stephen Harris in April 2005 as a development assistance coordinator. He is the third son of Harris to be hired by the county.

The lawsuit, filed Monday in Whitman County, alleges that Spokane County did not comply with a records request the alliance filed in May 2005 regarding the hire.

“The records we’ve sought from Spokane County are crucial to allow us to evaluate whether the hiring of Stephen Harris violated state law and the county’s ethical prohibition against nepotism,” said Lindell Haggin, the Neighborhood Alliance’s interim director.

In response to the lawsuit, county commissioners accused the center of playing politics in an election year. The alliance’s record request was sent by its then-director Bonnie Mager who is running for county commissioner. If she wins the Democratic primary against former state Rep. George Orr, she will face Harris in the November election.

“I would hate to see ourselves have to spend taxpayer money to defend ourselves against someone’s political aspirations,” said commission Chairman Todd Mielke.

The hiring controversy started in February 2005 when a county employee anonymously mailed a seating chart of the county’s building and planning department to a Neighborhood Alliance supporter before Harris was hired, said Breean Beggs, executive director of the Center for Justice, which is representing the alliance.

The chart had 19 names, including a box labeled “Ron & Steve.”

Haggin said the seating chart indicated that Stephen Harris may have been picked for the job well before he went through the hiring process.

County officials later said that “Ron” on the chart was Ron Hand, who was hired after the chart was created.

The identity of the “Steve” remains uncertain, Mielke said.

“We have 2,200 employees in Spokane County, and Steve is a pretty common name,” Mielke said. “I’m confident that we have handed over every document that we have in our possession.”

County leaders say the hire was done legally and fairly, without Phil Harris’ involvement. The decision to hire Stephen Harris was made by Jim Manson, the building and planning director and Pam Knutsen, assistant building and planning director. Stephen Harris, who used to run a battery business in California, makes $35,873 a year. He declined to comment on the case.

His boss, Economic Development Director Erik Skaggs, who is an Army reservist, was deployed last month for 120 days. County Operations Director Gerry Gemmill said Skaggs’ duties have been absorbed by himself, Harris and others. He said Harris’ position has not changed in Skaggs’ absence.

Harris’ other two sons at the county are:

•Ron Harris, a road maintenance specialist hired in 1996, who makes $39,472 a year.

•Mark Harris, a maintenance worker at the fairgrounds hired in 1997, who earns $34,988 annually.

Mager said the lawsuit “has nothing to do with my campaign.”

“The mission of the Neighborhood Alliance is to hold government accountable,” Mager said.

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