Planning director’s complaint investigated
An outside investigator says there is no merit to Spokane County Building and Planning Director Jim Manson’s whistle-blower complaint against the planner who successfully blew the whistle on him.
Manson’s Oct. 18 complaint involved a Memorial Day weekend e-mail exchange between planner Bruce Hunt and County Commissioner Bonnie Mager, using their personal e-mail accounts.
Mager asked Hunt for advice on how to keep the 207-unit Blue Grouse housing development from being built in a Spokane International Airport crash zone.
Before Mager took office in January, commissioners inadvertently opened the door to single-family housing in crash zones and Blue Grouse obtained vested construction rights before commissioners patched their mistake.
Asked to investigate Manson’s complaint, Whitman County Prosecutor Denis Tracy responded this week that he found no violation of any state, federal or local regulations, nor any “improper governmental action” as defined in the county’s whistle-blower protection policy.
“To the contrary, the planning department has a policy of encouraging communication between people in Mr. Hunt’s position and the commissioners,” Tracy wrote. “The use of home e-mail accounts does not violate any sort of rule or regulation.”
Commissioner Todd Mielke said Friday he was unaware of Tracy’s findings, but commission Chairman Mark Richard said considers the matter resolved.
He acknowledged, though, that a number of issues remain unresolved. Those include how to deal with strife in the Building and Planning Department, whether Manson’s leadership and work hours are adequate, and whether the county needs a policy to make sure e-mail discussions of county business are public.
Richard said commissioners have been studying ways to resolve conflicts between county planners and building inspectors, and they may consider a departmental reorganization next week. Richard said he has found Manson accessible, but commissioners need to address the complaints of Hunt and others that Manson is seldom available.
“He continues to leave at noon every day,” Hunt said. “He’s essentially a coach that doesn’t show up for the game.”
Manson said he typically works from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., even though the office doesn’t open until 8 a.m..
Hunt and Mager hailed Tracy’s report, but weren’t satisfied.
Mager said she was confident Tracy would find no wrongdoing. But she thought Manson’s complaint demonstrated a need for “some kind of criteria that you should have to meet before you try to stir up a hornet’s nest over something that’s not there.”
Mager said she doesn’t see “a big policy issue” in discussing public business on personal e-mail accounts, “but certainly if others do, we could put a policy in place and I would adhere to it.”
She said she is cooperating with a disclosure request for other messages outside the county computer network.
Richard said he was pleased that Hunt agreed to drop his harassment counterclaim against Manson, but Hunt said Friday that he still considers Manson’s complaint “harassment and retaliation” against him and “insubordination” against Mager.
Hunt accused Manson of “unconscionable” action in giving vested rights to the Blue Grouse crash-zone subdivision by accepting application fees.
Manson said county officials can’t refuse an application for a legal project, and housing developments in crash zones were legal when Blue Grouse developers applied.
Manson argued in his whistle-blower complaint that Hunt improperly advised Mager to return the application fee and to try to delay review of the project.
Also, Manson charged, Mager’s efforts to stop the Blue Grouse project – including seeking advice from the Futurewise organization, which supports growth management – didn’t “appear to be a proper discharge of a commissioner’s duties.”
Use of private e-mail accounts “has the appearance of a deliberate attempt to hide official actions from public scrutiny” in violation of the state Public Records Act, Manson added.
Manson suggested he filed his complaint under the county’s whistle-blower protection policy because he feared charges of retaliation for the complaint Hunt filed against him late last year.
After an investigation by a Stevens County deputy prosecutor, Spokane County commissioners agreed with Hunt that Manson was guilty of several improper actions, including authorization of a day care center in an airport crash zone and granting a zone change by ordering a map to be redrawn.