March 18, 2009 in City

Ex commissioner’s son gets $28k from county

By The Spokesman-Review
 

The son of former Spokane County Commissioner Phil Harris has been paid $28,000 to settle an employment dispute with the county.

County commissioners unanimously approved an agreement last month that puts an end to claims from Steve Harris that the county didn’t pay him enough, inappropriately limited his use of a county-owned car and dismissed him in retaliation for filing a whistleblower claim.

Harris was laid off along with several others from the county’s building and planning department last year.

Commissioner Bonnie Mager, who strongly criticized Harris’s 2005 hiring, said a portion of Harris’s claim had merit.

“In the long-run, I think we saved the taxpayers’ money,” Mager said.

Phillip Steven Harris, who went by Steve when he worked for the county, was hired for a job assisting developers through the county’s permitting processes. He later worked in the county’s economic development department.

He was the third son of Phil Harris to get a county job during Phil Harris’s 12-year tenure as a county commissioner. The hire sparked charges of nepotism that dogged the commissioner through his failed reelection bid in 2006.

Other county leaders at the time defended the hire, pointing to Steve Harris’s experience running a battery business. Even so, records indicate that Harris’ battery business in California failed. He filed for bankruptcy in 2004, owing creditors about $1 million. Rick Mount, attorney for the Spokane County Public Works Guild, said Harris’s record previous to the job was irrelevant to the case.

“There was no indication that I had that he didn’t do the job he was hired to do or he wasn’t qualified for the job he was doing,” Mount said.

He added that the case was “resolved to the satisfaction of the guild.”

Attempts to reach Steve Harris this week were unsuccessful.

County leaders have not questioned Harris’s work for the county. Instead, they said his position was one of about a dozen that were cut because of the declining economy. Harris claimed he was let go in retaliation for filing a whistleblower claim that alleged financial mismanagement and for filing grievances regarding his pay and use of a county car.

Commissioners questioned the timing of the whistleblower claim, filed the same month he lost his job, and say Harris’s whistleblower allegations were found to be untrue.

Mager said she was willing to agree to the settlement because of Harris’s argument about his pay. Harris said that he deserved a higher salary because he acted as the de facto economic development director after his boss, Erik Skaggs, resigned.

“He was, in essence, taking those responsibilities on,” said Mager, who defeated Phil Harris in the 2006 election. “We have to be much more diligent about looking at out-of-class pay.”

Mielke said the guild’s contention that the county improperly ordered Steve Harris to stop driving a county-owned car to and from his home in Stevens County also had merit.

“The bottom line is the employee contract says that we’re supposed to negotiate that,” Mielke said. “It appears we didn’t do that to the extent we should have.”

County leaders say they reject Harris’s allegations that he was retaliated against and that they tried to craft an amount similar to what they believed he was owed for the car claim and pay disparity.

Aaron Lowe, an attorney who represented Harris, noted that the final agreement doesn’t specify which claims commissioners agreed were valid.

Harris’ hire sparked a public records lawsuit from the Center for Justice, which argues that the county failed to make a good faith effort to look for records requested by the Neighborhood Alliance of Spokane County related to the hire. The case is scheduled to be heard next month in the Washington State Court of Appeals.

Jonathan Brunt can be reached at jonathanb@spokesman.com or (509) 459-5442


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email