Vote on commissioner’s absence arouses concern

Spokane Valley Planning Commissioner Marcia Sands is deciding her future on the commission after four of her fellow commissioners voted at last Thursday’s meeting not to excuse her absence after she recused herself from all discussions having to do with the city’s update of its Shoreline Master Program.

The state-mandated update must be approved by the Department of Ecology, where Sands works as a geologist. Sands, who has served on the commission since 2006, notified the city in March that her employer was requiring her to recuse herself.

Commission chairman Bill Bates and commissioners Rod Higgins, Steven Neill and Joe Stoy voted not to excuse Sands while commissioners Rustin Hall and John Carroll voted to excuse the absence. The vote did not sit well with Carroll, who voiced his objection near the end of the meeting.

“I think that was a slap at her,” Carroll said. “We failed to recognize her long-standing service and the reason she couldn’t be here.”

Carroll said he was also concerned that there was no discussion before the vote, which led him to believe there was “improper collaboration outside this meeting.”

“So noted,” said Bates before he closed the meeting without further comment.

Commission rules state that a commissioner can be removed if he or she has six unexcused absences. Sands has missed three meetings so far this year but at earlier meetings there wasn’t a vote on whether to excuse her.

At a previous meeting, Sands said she had concerns about violations of the Open Public Meetings Act after she saw four commissioners chatting in the parking lot after a meeting. When she approached them, they told her they were deciding where to go out for a beer, she said. Four planning commissioners is a quorum.

At the time Sands declined to identify the commissioners involved. This week Sands confirmed that the four who voted against excusing her are the same four she saw in the parking lot.

Sands said she is considering whether to resign her seat, allow the appointment of a temporary commissioner to take her place at some meetings or attend the meetings without participating. “My term is up at the end of this year anyway,” she said. “I highly doubt this council would invite me to stay another term. What I’m debating right now is whether to step down right now.”

Sands said she understands why her employer asked her not to participate in the shoreline discussion even though her work as a geologist has nothing to do with shorelines. “Ecology is very sensitive to even the appearance of a conflict of interest, unlike the Spokane Valley City Council,” she said.

Sands said she would make a decision soon. “I could be wrong, but I think I’m viewed with animosity by the current council because I was appointed by the previous council,” she said. “I think it’s pretty much whatever they can do to get rid of me. I think last Thursday’s vote showed that.”

In explaining his vote a few days after the meeting, Bates said, “We need everybody here, in my mind, when we’re talking about something as important as shoreline management. I don’t think it’s fair to the commission, fair to the staff or fair to the community.”

Bates said Sands never contacted him to explain her absence and believes her notification read into the record at a previous meeting that she was recusing herself at her employers request wasn’t enough of an explanation to warrant excusing her.

Mayor Tom Towey, who is Bates’ half brother, said he was aware of the vote, but the planning commission was “perfectly within their right” in voting not to excuse Sands. “My personal feeling on it is beside the point,” he said.

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