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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spat deepens among county commissioners

The fissure is growing among the three Republicans serving on the usually lock-step Spokane County Commission.

A political battle over the proposed sales tax increase to fund public transit has prompted allegations by Al French that his colleagues used personal cellphones to circumvent public meeting laws. Commissioners Todd Mielke and Shelly O’Quinn deny those claims and say the political cracks may run deeper than a controversial ballot measure.

“He doesn’t see me as an equal,” O’Quinn said of French on Thursday. “He doesn’t treat me as an equal.”

French declined comment on his complaint to the state auditor’s office about his colleagues’ cellphone use and did not return a phone call Thursday requesting comment on O’Quinn’s charge.

French complained to a state auditor in January that O’Quinn and Mielke were texting during public meetings and appeared to be discussing the STA sales tax ballot measure on their personal cellphones. That three-tenths of a percent sales tax increase currently before voters is supported by French and opposed by Mielke and O’Quinn.

Both O’Quinn and Mielke deny the allegations and said they were surprised by the state’s warning that use of their cellphones might be in violation of Washington’s Open Public Meetings Act.

“What he’s looking for isn’t there,” said O’Quinn.

Work papers prepared by Debbie Pinnick, the state’s audit manager for Spokane County, reveal French spoke with her in January about the alleged personal cellphone use.

State law requires notifying the public when a quorum of a governing body is present, which would mean anytime two members of the Spokane County Commission speak to each other about county business. While the county bought business cellphones in July for commissioners, complete with the ability to capture text messages and call logs to produce public records easily, French said as of January only his had been activated.

O’Quinn admitted that the voicemail was not set up on her cellphone until recently, but that’s only because the device bought by the county is not user-friendly to make phone calls and she prefers speaking on her personal mobile phone or office landline. During an interview Thursday, she showed several texts that had been sent and received on the business cellphone.

Pinnick, the audit manager, wrote in recommendations following the February audit, “During our audit we were made aware of the potential for increased risk of noncompliance with the Open Public Meetings Act. The County operates with a three member Board of Commissioners. Communications using personal cell phones between two commissioners that include the discussion of County business could result in a violation of the Act …”

Mielke said Pinnick never talked to him before bringing up the issue at a meeting held at the conclusion of the state’s accountability audit, nor did she ask for his phone records.

He also said a similar finding had not been made at any other county in the state, despite the fact that most are governed by a three-member county commission.

“What really upset me about it is it seems one of our own county commissioners is insecure,” Mielke said of French.

Mielke said many of his phone calls to colleagues made on his personal cellphone over the past several months had been to schedule meetings and to inform them he’d be running late. The Spokesman-Review has made a public records request for texts and phone logs on commissioners’ personal cellphones over the past several months, but those records are not yet available for review.

Nancy Krier, Washington’s assistant attorney general for open government, said it’s unlikely an exchange between two commissioners about being five minutes late for a meeting would trigger the requirements of the Open Public Meetings Act.

“I don’t want to assume it could never rise to that occasion,” Krier said. “But that would be something that you wouldn’t even create minutes for.”

Pinnick’s audit recommendation carries no penalty. If violations occurred, the matter would need to be brought before a Superior Court judge, who could fine elected officials up to $100 for each meeting found to be in violation of the law.

O’Quinn said she believed the complaint was initially made by community activists seeking a County Commission with more members, a push that has been made several times in the past few years. She said she initially felt betrayed by the cellphone allegations but now believes French’s complaint is related to the ongoing spat among commissioners about the STA sales tax measure.

“It’s an issue,” O’Quinn said. “It’s not personal.”

French brought up the STA issue in his January discussion with Pinnick, according to the audit manager’s notes. He told Pinnick it appeared O’Quinn had discussed the issue with Mielke outside a public meeting to drum up opposition to the sales tax increase. Both O’Quinn and Mielke, as well as the Spokane County Republican Party, have come out against the $300 million plan for service extension, saying it asks too much of taxpayers and is too ambitious. French supports the measure and has made several public appearances touting the plan.

O’Quinn denied speaking to Mielke directly about the STA issue, saying she instead recruited colleagues on the STA board and other elected officials to lobby him on her behalf.

Mielke and O’Quinn also said the fissure on the County Commission over the STA ballot proposal is just one in a series of disputes. Mielke said O’Quinn’s and French’s decision-making styles clash; O’Quinn’s approach is deliberative, while French’s is confident.

“It’s not that she arrives at a different decision,” Mielke said. “She’s trying to understand and ask questions. … That has made Al very uncomfortable.”

Providing backdrop for the current political enmity is Mielke’s bid to replace the retiring Marshall Farnell as the county’s chief executive officer. A selection committee is set to interview four candidates, including Mielke, today and forward three names to county commissioners for review next month in public interviews. Mielke would require approval of both his colleagues to earn the job.

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