Monday was the last day on the job for Hayden Mayor Steve Griffitts, who announced his resignation last week after two city council members went against the advice of the city attorney and refused to recuse themselves from voting on an issue they had spoken against before they were elected.
“They’re on the record,” Griffitts said of council members Ed DePriest and Sandra White. “They sent documents or testified.”
Griffitts said it was explained to the council members repeatedly that the city would be vulnerable to legal liabilities if they refused to recuse themselves. “We’ve had opportunities publicly and in executive session,” he said. “And they’ve had training classes. I can’t fix that. I can’t mentor them out of that. If you’re going to be that brazen, I can’t do it.”
Griffitts released a statement on Wednesday announcing his plans to resign. “You elected me to lead this city,” the statement reads. “I can not do so if this Council doesn’t live up to the oath of office that they swore to uphold.”
At issue is a rezone request from Aspen Homes that went before the Planning and Zoning Commission and City Council last year. The request was to change the designation of a parcel of land on the southwest corner of Hayden Avenue and Ramsey Road from commercial to mixed use.
The request was denied, but Aspen Homes filed a request for a new public hearing, arguing the initial decision was “arbitrary and capricious” and “in violation of substantive law.” The vote that DePriest and White participated in at the Tuesday council meeting was on whether a new hearing would be granted. The vote was unanimous to allow a second hearing.
DePriest had already agreed to recuse himself from the vote, but announced during the meeting that he had changed his mind. “I want to rescind my recusal,” he said. “I’m quite capable of making a decision.”
White also announced she would not recuse herself. “I have not made up my mind regarding the outcome of the hearing or the facts,” she said.
City Attorney Fonda Jovick cautioned against voting because the conflict of interest was clear. “This was not a perceived conflict,” she said. “They do have public comment in the Planning and Zoning packet before them as part of the record this evening.”
White had testified against the rezone request at a public meeting, and DePriest had sent an email to the planning department complaining that he had been told that there weren’t any rezone requests shortly before the Aspen Homes request was announced. DePriest acknowledged attaching photos of the Hayden Avenue site to the email but said he never addressed the zone change directly.
Jovick said that didn’t matter. “It was addressed to the planning department, so it was rightly included in the packet,” she said. “That was the only application out there at the time.”
DePriest was the founder of a group called Responsible North Idaho Growth that frequently advocated against housing density. In an interview last week, DePriest said he is no longer involved in the group. “Before I was elected, I was speaking at almost every council and community meeting about growth issues,” he said.
He said he doesn’t believe voting will be detrimental to the city.
“I knew I was going to approve their request to reconsider,” he said. “I knew I wasn’t going to put the city at risk. I voted to approve it. What’s the applicant going to do?”
However, DePriest said he intends to recuse himself on the rezone change request after another hearing is held.
“I do agree with the attorney’s advice that I should not participate in the hearing,” he said. “I will recuse myself for that hearing.”
White did not respond to a request for comment.
According to Idaho Code, city council members who disregard legal advice in conflict of interest cases can face criminal and civil penalties. The civil penalties include a $500 fine, and a criminal charge could lead to up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
The city itself could also be held legally liable if the property owner files a takings claim in court or petitions for judicial review, Jovick said.
In a later interview, Jovick said DePriest and White were told before they were sworn in as council members that they would need to recuse themselves from any vote involving Aspen Homes rezoning. She declined to comment on what actions the city might take next. “We are still working on that point,” she said.
Griffitts said legal liability to the city is what he is worried about.
“That is one of my fears,” he said. “You don’t go against legal advice. We just have to be obedient to the law. It’s so easy.”
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