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Shawn Vestal: Commissioner’s records request adds fuel to flare-up over planning

Public records laws are important tools for citizens to use in the battle against government secrecy and power.

Anyone who has ever used them is familiar with occasional stonewalling and foot-dragging from public officials – just as they are familiar with the occasional harassing, burdensome requests to agencies from gadflies and journalists.

It’s ironic that the latest local episode of harassment-by-records-request comes not from a citizen or journalist, but from County Commissioner Al French. It’s even more ironic that French claims the request is not what it so obviously is: an attempt to annoy, chasten and insult those who disagree with him.

A county attorney filed French’s eight-page, 36-point public records request with the city of Spokane last week. It may be the least sincere effort to obtain a public record ever filed under the Washington Public Records Act. French’s request is a snide thumb in the eye to those on the City Council who have dared to cross him, full of insinuation and excessive demands. It is a pure waste of time – the time French and a county attorney spent on it, and the time the city will now spend responding to it as though it were legitimate.

And it comes at the moment that the city and the county are trying to cooperate more on land-use planning.

The request is an extension of the political battle over sprawl in Spokane County. While it does request actual records, many of the “records” “requested” by French are nothing more than sideways complaints about statements City Council members have made that he does not like. Nineteen of the 36 parts in the request consist of French challenging quotations by council members Jon Snyder, Candace Mumm, Amber Waldref and Ben Stuckart – often demanding legal authority in the defense of opinion.

He quotes Waldref saying she doesn’t believe we need to be developing land outside the city boundaries, and then asks for a legal opinion that her statement “does not violate” a city utility agreement. He quotes Snyder and Waldref expressing opposition to state law on vesting, and demands copies of their oaths of office or the city’s code of ethics. (He does not see it as contradictory to suggest the council is unethical in trying to work against the state law on vesting, while he and his fellow commissioners continually work against state law on growth management.) He repeatedly demands documents supporting the notion that sprawl imposes additional costs on city residents, or that the county has in any way, ever, grown in a way that might be costly or concerning to city residents.

French asks: “Please provide copies of list(s) of neighborhoods that have identified through their neighborhood planning process their desire to have parts of their neighborhoods demolished to accommodate the construction of apartment buildings, condo’s or townhouses … to achieve the City’s desired density.”

Smell the cooperative spirit?

French defended the request this week as an effort to get past the political argument and into the simple facts, and to help foster a good public discussion.

“How do we make good decisions if we don’t have good information?” he asked. “That has to go beyond the rhetoric.”

He pointed out that City Council members and other critics of county growth policies have made sweeping, incorrect statements that extending utilities outside the city limits is paid for by city taxpayers only, when the cost for that is borne by those paying higher fees in those areas. Mumm, in particular, asserted that rising utility bills are the result of county planning decisions. French also made lots of fair points about growth in Spokane County, including this one: Plenty of people want dense developments over there, and lots of elbow room for themselves.

But French repeatedly glides past the broader truth that sprawling growth on the edges of the city, as opposed to “in-fill” growth, is costlier to city residents in a whole range of ways. And there is simply no way to read his records request as an attempt to foster a healthier, more factual debate.

A final example: French takes issue with Snyder’s use of the term “loophole” to refer to state law on vesting projects. Essentially, projects are grandfathered in the moment the county approves them, even if they are later overturned by state officials or the courts. Most states make developers wait until a challenge is resolved before allowing construction to begin.

This is crucial in the current discussion because the County Commission loses every time it goes before the Growth Management Board on a disputed project. Every single time. They often win in court later, but even by the count of French and Commissioner Todd Mielke, around 25 percent of the time, they don’t.

In other words, one of every four projects the County Commission approves is overturned in court. But if the developers are vested, it doesn’t matter. This was the loophole the City Council attempted to close before the mayor vetoed it.

French, in his quest for facts and battle against rhetoric, asks: “Please provide copies of any legal authority or any court ruling or statute upon which the concept of ‘vesting’ is defined as a loophole.”

It’s not the concept of vesting, obviously, but the timing of it that makes this a loophole. But French doesn’t need a public record here. He needs a dictionary.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.