It is not unusual for elected officials to ask their constituents their opinion on certain issues that are being discussed in the halls of government.
Last year when the city of Spokane Valley wanted suggestions on how to improve the Sprague/Appleway Revitalization Plan, business owners were invited to a series of public meetings to provide input. But more recently Spokane Valley City Councilwoman Brenda Grassel has picked a different way to get opinions from local builders that doesn’t include that kind of public process.
In May, Grassel sent a letter to all members of the Spokane Home Builders Association. In it she asked for their opinions on the city’s permitting process but asked them to send their comments to SHBA executive officer Joel White. “He will then put together a list of the top issues so that we can begin to make those changes,” she wrote. “By sending them to Joel you can remain anonymous.”
The letter ends with Grassel writing that people can contact her directly to give their input as well. Any emails or letters sent to a council member become public records and copies can be requested by any member of the public.
So far neither White nor Grassel have received any comments from members who got the letter.
“We actually talked about this for a year, sending out something,” Grassel said. “Some of their builders had been complaining about our permitting process. We can’t really fix anything based on general statements that our permitting process is a pain to work with. We need some specific examples.”
There isn’t anything wrong with requesting people send their input to a third party, Grassel said. “There’s nothing hidden about it,” she said. “It’s for them not to have retribution by staff.”
“I’m not aware of that happening,” said Community Development Director Kathy McClung about retribution by staff. “If that did occur, there would be problems for the staff. It’s just something they don’t need to fear.”
McClung said she has gotten complaints directly over the years. “Any person that has ever brought any kind of complaint forward, we have investigated it and taken corrective action,” she said. “A lot of time, people call me and staff doesn’t know where I got the information.”
McClung also said that unless an anonymous complaint is extremely detailed, it’s likely she wouldn’t be able to investigate it. “I need to talk to the person to get the context of the situation and get specific information,” she said.
Grassel said she checked with the city’s attorney before sending out the letter and is only trying to get input from her constituents. “We do that on a regular basis,” she said. “I’m not going to argue about the legalities of it.”
Grassel said her efforts are just part of her process to bring improvements to the city. The focus on the permit process dates back to before she took office when she received incorrect information from a city employee about installing a new sign at her business. The employee just shrugged it off and didn’t apologize, Grassel said. “I believe there’s an attitude problem down there at the permit office,” she said.
In the letter Grassel wrote that she and Councilman Dean Grafos “Are continuing to work on streamlining our processes which includes our permitting process.” Grafos said he and Grassel have met with SHBA members twice and one of those meetings included City Manager Mike Jackson. “I’ve never seen the letter,” he said. “I’m not working directly with Brenda, but as those issues come up we’re seeing what we can do to streamline the regulations and maybe even change the regulations.”
Grafos is supportive of allowing people to send in their feedback anonymously through a third party. Sending a signed complaint to the city “may put them on the firing line,” he said.
White said it is not unusual for him to distribute letters from elected officials to his members. “This is not a coordinated effort between us and council member Grassel,” he said. “All I’m going to do is collect the information and send it on.”
He confirmed that some people believe there will be retribution in some form if they complain. “There’s been a lot of tension over the years between our industry and the building and planning departments at the city,” he said. “Members sometimes say if they speak out they won’t be treated well by staff. There have been some instances where that has happened.”