March 2, 2012 in City

Land ownership complicates potential sale to city, library

By The Spokesman-Review

A possible land deal involving the city of Spokane Valley and the Spokane County Library District will get extra scrutiny because of ties between most members of the Spokane Valley City Council and the owner of the property.

Longtime Valley businessman Jack Pring owns eight acres of land at the corner of Sprague Avenue and Herald Road with an assessed value of $1.5 million. The Library District is eyeing four acres of the property to build a new branch, but Pring is unwilling to split the property, leading the library to approach the city about going in on the land purchase.

The city could use its half of the land to expand the adjacent Balfour Park, but Pring’s financial and social ties to many city leaders are drawing some attention.

Pring has donated amounts ranging from $300 to $1,250 to the election campaigns of every council member except Ben Wick. Councilman Chuck Hafner worked for Pring as vice president and general manager of Appleway Equipment and Leasing Inc. from 1976 to 1978. When Hafner applied for a vacant council seat in April 2011, to which he was eventually appointed, he listed Pring as a reference.

Before the majority of the council was elected in 2009, Pring was part of daily coffee gatherings that included the then-candidates and their supporters as they ran a joint campaign. The coffees continued after the election and Pring still regularly attends the daily conversations.

Wick said the land deal has an appearance of being a conflict of interest, but he believes the deal would be acceptable, if proper procedures are followed.

“Even the appearance of a conflict of interest is a conflict of interest in my mind, but we need to do what is best for our city and our citizens,” Wick said. “I’d hate to miss a good opportunity, if one is there.”

An attorney with the State Auditor’s Office said the city can take steps to stay within the letter of the law, and Hafner said he is no longer close with Pring.

“That’s been 35 years ago that I worked for Jack,” Hafner said. “That relationship was gone a long time ago.”

Whether or not the council has a conflict of interest that violates state law depends on “what they actually do to buy the property,” said Jan Jutte, director of legal affairs for the Washington State Auditor’s Office. The council would have to make sure to follow proper procedures, including obtaining an independent appraisal of the property to make sure the purchase price is not too high. The $1.5 million assessed value came from the Spokane County Assessor’s Office.

“I think it’s really a matter of how it plays out,” Jutte said.

Mayor Tom Towey, who received a $1,250 donation from Pring in 2009, said the potential deal is “at its infant stage right now. We’re just gathering information.”

The proposal appears to be a good deal for everyone involved, he said. “Certainly we have to look at it.”

Towey said he does not believe Pring’s contribution to his campaign creates a conflict of interest. “A lot of people gave towards my campaign,” he said.

Councilman Arne Woodard said he would announce from the council dais that Pring gave $300 to his campaign. He said he believes “every person on that council can set aside where we got our election funds to look at what is best for the city. I don’t believe personally it’s going to be a problem on conflict of interest.”

Said Hafner, “If the situation is a good one for the city and for the library, then I’m going to look at it very positively.” He added, “I was elected by the people of this community. Jack Pring did not elect me.”

The city was approached by the Library District about the possible land purchase, not by Pring, said Councilman Dean Grafos, who received campaign contributions from Pring of $500 in 2009 and $800 in 2011. “I don’t believe it presents a conflict of interest to me,” Grafos said. “I know he’s donated to most of the people on the council.”

The proposal would lead to a new library with additional employees and the expansion of Balfour Park, Grafos said. “I think it’s an asset to the city to move ahead,” he said. “We’re very, very lacking in park land. Whatever happens on that, we will make sure if it moves ahead it will be at a fair price subject to appraisal. It’s not going to be a windfall deal for Jack Pring.”

Even though Grafos had morning coffee with Pring as recently as Tuesday, he said he has not talked to Pring about the proposed deal. “It’s a hands-off deal with me,” he said.

Pring declined to comment on the proposed land purchase.

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