April 5, 2007 in City

Report questions decisionsby county planning director

By The Spokesman-Review

Spokane County’s building and planning director last year improperly authorized a day-care center to be placed in an airport crash zone at the request of a developer, according to findings of a four-month investigation.

Results of the investigation released Wednesday also found that the director, Jim Manson, improperly rezoned eight acres of land being developed by the same developer, Richard Vandervert, without a public hearing.

The investigation was initiated by a whistleblower complaint filed in December by planner Bruce Hunt, who alleged seven improprieties.

The two-page summary of the investigation is scant on details, and the full report isn’t expected to be released until later this month.

Reached late Wednesday afternoon, Manson, who has maintained that he acted properly, said he had not been given a copy of the summary and did not want to comment until he had it.

“I’m kind of at a disadvantage,” he said.

Of the seven complaints brought by Hunt, the summary found that three had merit, including the day-care center and rezoning issue.

Investigators also agreed with Hunt’s concern that Manson improperly extended rock-crushing privileges in 2005 at a site southeast of Deer Park even though the temporary permit for the operation wasn’t renewable.

Hunt and Vandervert did not return calls seeking comment Wednesday afternoon.

The summary also raises questions about a building permit issued to assistant building and planning director Pam Knutsen. Hunt alleged that Knutsen submitted an application for a building permit for a 1,200-square-foot structure adjacent to her Newman Lake residence in May 2005.

A county planner refused to issue her the permit, arguing that rules would forbid the “accessory dwelling” to be bigger than 900 square feet, Hunt said. Knutsen took the matter to another assistant building and planning director, Mark Holman, who signed the permit.

The summary said Knutsen argued that the building was an addition that was allowed under county rules. The county assessor’s office, however, lists the structure as a separate dwelling. Knutsen could not be reached late Wednesday.

“We are not able to conclude which is the correct position,” the summary said.

“However, in our opinion, the way this matter was handled creates the appearance of an abuse of authority, and corrective actions to avoid this type of perception should be explored.”

Commissioners Mark Richard and Bonnie Mager said they believe the investigation was thorough. Attempts to reach Commissioner Todd Mielke, who is on vacation, were unsuccessful. Spokane County officials asked Stevens County Deputy Prosecutor Lloyd Nickel to lead the examination to avoid conflicts of interest. The summary letter was also signed by Spokane County Human Resources Director Cathy Malzahn and county Human Resources Analyst Carol McVicker.

“Now it’s our turn to look at the material and look at the results,” Richard said.

He added that it may take two to four weeks for the commission to examine the case and decide what action is required.

The summary letter recommends that “corrective” action be “explored” but doesn’t say if investigators are suggesting discipline.

The ruling about the rezoning stemmed from Hunt’s allegation that Manson improperly rezoned eight acres at 608 E. Holland Ave. in May 2005 from low-density residential to mixed-use by issuing an “administrative interpretation.”

Manson also used an administration interpretation in March 2006 when he said a child care center could be placed in a Spokane International Airport crash zone for a proposed runway despite county zoning laws that say child day cares aren’t allowed in the zones. Vandervert had requested the ability to allow a day care in the new headquarters of the Ambassadors Group, a Spokane company that sends travelers and students on international and domestic trips.

Airport officials said allowing a day-care center, even as part of a headquarters, could endanger the airport’s ability to expand.

Accusations from planners that the county goes easy on developers aren’t new. Former planning director Wally Hubbard claimed the county fired him in 1995 because he wouldn’t bend zoning rules after being pressured to do so by former County Commissioners Phil Harris and Steve Hasson.

Similar concerns were voiced last year in the commissioner’s race by Bonnie Mager, who accused Harris of being too cozy with development interests.

Part of Hunt’s complaint alleges that Harris’ son Steve was improperly hired by the county. He also said Harris acted with Manson to “secure special privileges” for Vandervert for the day-care center.

But investigators wrote that the hiring wasn’t covered by whistleblower policy and declined to investigate it. Moreover, Harris – who was the only person named in the summary – was cleared of all allegations.

“We have found no evidence of improper governmental action on the part of former Commissioner Phillip Harris,” the summary said.

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