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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Clean air agency members counter Spokane council president’s criticism, cite Stuckart’s conflict of interest, ignorance of agency’s role

Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart, who has criticized the area clean air agency for more than a year, said Tuesday the agency overreached in its authority and was “justifying their existence” through issuing asbestos-related fines and cannabis industry regulations. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Board members of the local clean air agency say Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart has inappropriately injected politics into the regulatory process and accused him of being beholden to the cannabis industry over the interests of public health.

Their rejections of Stuckart’s recent criticism of the agency were nearly unanimous. Board members said Stuckart lacks knowledge of the Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency’s role and pointed to his absences from their meetings.

Stuckart, who has criticized the agency for more than a year, said Tuesday the agency overreached in its authority. He said it was “justifying their existence” through issuing asbestos-related fines and cannabis industry regulations, both of which squelched private industry.

Al French, a Spokane County commissioner and chairman of the clean air agency’s five-member board, said Stuckart was “more motivated by special interests than the public interest.”

Stuckart denied the charge and said his willingness to take on a public agency showed his independence.

“I’m beholden to nobody,” he said. “Anytime you support or criticize something, you’re beholden to somebody. Well, I guess I’ve got a lot of masters around here.”

The troubles began in January 2018 when Stuckart joined the board. At the time he was an adviser to the Cannabis Farmers Council and took on the board by saying it was “fascinating that a bunch of conservative Republicans want to completely regulate and tax an industry to death,” referring to the agency’s new rules about odors emanating from outdoor-growing operations.

When French heard Stuckart was an adviser to the farmers council, a coalition of local growers who opposed the new regulations imposed by the pollution agency, he protested.

“I thought, ‘You’ve got a conflict of interest here. This is not ethically appropriate, you sitting on a regulatory agency when you’re an adviser to an industry you’re trying to regulate,’ ” said French, a Republican.

The agency’s lawyer agreed, and a month later Stuckart resigned as an adviser.

Over the course of the following year, Stuckart attended just four of the board’s monthly meetings.

“He never came to the meetings,” said Tom Brattebo, the one member of the board who isn’t an elected official. “I don’t think he really knows what’s going on.”

Brattebo, a board member who worked for Kaiser Aluminum for decades before retiring in 2002, said Stuckart’s comments on the agency came from a place of ignorance.

“If he had a question, a board meeting would’ve been a perfect venue to discuss what was going on,” Brattebo said. “The city of Spokane is a major player in the region and they don’t seem to have an interest in air quality.”

Brattebo said he doesn’t remember Stuckart saying much at the meetings he did attend.

“Since he didn’t really know what was going on, he didn’t really participate. That’s my recollection,” he said. “He was pretty much checked out.”

Kevin Freeman, a geologist and the mayor of Millwood who sits on the board, suggested Stuckart engineered the ouster of the city’s previous citizen-representative in order to take the seat himself. Stuckart was “particularly engaged around issues regarding marijuana,” Freeman said.

“We had really good attendance from the citizen representative,” Freeman said. “We have yet to see a representative from the city back to the air board. If the city has problems, the city needs to have a representative on the board.”

City Councilwoman Kate Burke has been appointed to the board and will attend her first meeting in April.

“I was dumped on the board because Ben didn’t want to go anymore,” she said.

Carmen Nezat, director of the Environmental Science Program at Eastern Washington University and a professor of geology, said she is disappointed Stuckart didn’t use his board position to better understand the agency’s role.

“It’s unfortunate that Stuckart wasn’t able to attend the board meetings. That’s where a lot of the information is given about the regulations. That’s where the board members are able to vote on these issues,” she said. “That’s where board members are able to vent their frustrations.”

Nezat’s decision not to seek a second, four-year term on the board following a promotion at EWU is what led to Stuckart’s placement. In September 2017, she wrote Mayor David Condon, telling him she would help in the transition of her successor and eventually met with him in his office.

“It was pointed out by the mayor that most of the people on the board were elected officials and he talked about the pros and cons of that,” she said, noting that he didn’t ask her opinion about it but just discussed his views aloud. She did say, however, that she “never got the impression that the clean air agency wanted an elected official.”

As 2018 approached, Julie Oliver, the air agency’s director, said she contacted Brandy Cote, the director of the mayor’s office, to discuss the replacement. Oliver shared the emails showing her exchange with Cote.

On Dec. 21, 2017, Cote wrote to Oliver: “Mayor is still considering whether or not to have it be an elected or private representative. My apologies for the delay, but it will likely be in January before we have a final answer.”

A month later, on Jan. 25, 2018, Cote wrote again to Oliver.

“I wanted to let you know that Mayor Condon has decided to move forward with appointing an elected official to the board, and that the selection is Council President Ben Stuckart,” she wrote.

Marlene Feist, the city’s spokeswoman, disputes the account, and said the city put an elected official on the board at the clean air agency’s behest.

“We did that at the request of the clean air agency. They asked for an elected. Ben was willing to serve,” Feist said. “Everyone else on the board was an elected and they wanted a decision-maker on there.”

Oliver said she was confused by the city’s denial of what led to Stuckart’s appointment.

“I’m not sure why they’re saying that,” she said. “It’s their call. They have their own process. They pick whether they want an elected, a citizen or a city employee.”

Regardless, Stuckart was appointed by Condon and confirmed by the City Council, but he became disengaged with the board and stopped attending meetings. Stuckart said he had a time conflict with another board. Even if he went to the meetings, he said, it wouldn’t have changed his criticism.

“My complaints are from listening to the citizens. Whether I’m a board member or not, I’m hearing from the citizens,” he said. “It has nothing to do with whether I go to the monthly meetings. Quite frankly, at the monthly meetings they didn’t want to talk about these things.”

Aside from his concerns about the cannabis industry, Stuckart said his issues with the clean air agency’s asbestos regulations were raised first by two city employees, who asked him to write a letter to the agency.

They were concerned with the delayed work on the Otis Hotel in downtown Spokane, which was stopped for three months after inspectors found signs of asbestos but no documentation that the project had hired a contractor certified to deal with the cancer-causing material. Fines have been issued by the Washington state Department of Labor and Industries, and more fines are forthcoming from the clean air agency. The developer, Curtis Rystadt, denies any wrongdoing and has vowed to appeal the fines.

“They couldn’t get straight answers on what the fines were going to be or when the fines were going to be issued,” Stuckart said of Teri Stripes and Andrew Warlock, planners with the city. “They asked me to write that letter. It was a city staff recommendation.”

Stuckart said his words against the air agency shouldn’t be interpreted as him being wholly against its larger role.

“They have a lot of good programs there,” he said. “But odor problems on a plant should not be the priority of a clean air agency. I’d much rather they be dealing with life-threatening things like the poison in our air and global climate change. The CO2 in our atmosphere is going to kill us all, and if you have a clean air agency that isn’t taking it seriously, I’ve got a problem with that.”

The importance of the air agency’s work is something Brattebo, the citizen board member, can agree with. He worked at the Kaiser Aluminum Trentwood plant in the 1970s “in various aspects of the operation of the melting furnaces.”

“We made smoke go up the smokestack,” he said. “I’m out in the plant and we’d get a call from somebody who lived off of Trent and they’d say there’s somebody in a car looking at the plant through a pair of binoculars. That’s my first introduction to the agency.”

After retirement, and after seeing some of the generation of workers before him die of asbestos exposure, he gave his time to the air agency.

“This is my penance. I have some idea what we did and what we had to do to clean it up and why we had to clean it up,” he said. “I’ve been around Spokane 40-plus years and I’ve seen the air change.”

The rules may be onerous, but they’re there to protect public health, Brattebo said.

“It may be quick and easy or cheaper to sneak it out the back door, but on a big project they need to follow the rules,” he said. “Big business doesn’t always do what’s best.”