French delivers scathing attack against airport board member in incident that shows fissures on county commission
Mon., Jan. 16, 2023
In a surprise slideshow presentation last week, Spokane County Commissioner Al French spent nearly 30 minutes excoriating a volunteer member of the Spokane Airport Board.
Elected officials don’t often criticize volunteer board members in public, half-hour diatribes, so French’s slideshow attack on Collins Sprague, Avista’s senior director of government affairs, would have been significant under any circumstance.
But his presentation was also relevant because it revealed the growing tension between conservatives on the new five-member county commission, where Republicans hold a 3-2 majority.
Commissioner Mary Kuney, one of French’s fellow Republicans, called the slideshow presentation inappropriate.
“I’ve never seen anyone do that,” Kuney said. “I would hope that this doesn’t continue, this type of behavior.”
French, who attacked Kuney in addition to Sprague, said he simply was trying to protect the airport and its CEO, Larry Krauter. He argues that Sprague harassed Krauter this summer when he was serving as the airport board’s chair and that if Krauter were to quit, Spokane County would suffer.
“The loss of Mr. Krauter would set SIA (the Spokane International Airport) back 20 years,” French wrote in his slideshow. “There is no other individual that can do what Larry has done.”
In a written statement, Sprague defended himself against French’s accusations.
“It was both an honor and a privilege to serve on the Airport Board for nearly a decade,” he wrote. “To the extent that Mr. French has a different viewpoint on my service, I must respectfully disagree with him on that point.”
Airport board nomination prompts attack
French’s unexpected attack on Sprague happened during the Spokane County Commission’s Tuesday meeting.
The longtime politician wanted his fellow commissioners to appoint Tom Simpson, CEO of Ignite Northwest and president of the Spokane Angel Alliance, to replace Sprague as the county’s appointee on the airport board. French acknowledged during the meeting that the county has previously given Ignite Northwest financial support for economic development purposes but said in an interview that he believed it was less than $10,000.
The seven-member airport board, under the authority of the Spokane City Council and county commission, oversees the Spokane airport, Felts Field and Airport Business Park. French is the county’s elected representative on the board, while Sprague has been the county’s appointee since 2013.
Commissioner Chris Jordan, a Democrat who took office this month, motioned to delay Simpson’s appointment. As a new commissioner, Jordan said he hadn’t had a chance to read the three applications for the position and wanted two weeks to vet the candidates.
French objected to the motion and proceeded to launch into his presentation, which included a long list of allegations against Sprague and, to a lesser extent, Kuney.
At issue is a June incident involving French, Sprague, Kuney and Krauter. Krauter did not respond to requests for comment.
‘Not a huge issue, but one that needs to be addressed’
Sprague, Kuney and French have dramatically different interpretations of the incident but appear to agree on the general outline of what happened.
This spring, the airport board was working on an update to the Felts Field master plan. After completing it, the airport board forwarded it to the City Council and county commission for approval in the form of a resolution.
When Kuney read the resolution in June, one line stood out to her. It stated that the city and county would delegate their authority to the airport for an indefinite period of time and allow the board to approve future revisions to the master plan on the city and county’s behalf.
Kuney says she wasn’t sure exactly what that “delegation of authority” line meant and asked Sprague, the airport board’s chair, for clarification.
Sprague then reviewed the resolution presented to Kuney and the resolution approved by the airport board and saw the two documents differed. Only the one forwarded to the city and county had the line requesting delegation of authority.
“Simply put, there was a concern that the language between the Airport Resolution and the City/County Resolution were inconsistent,” Sprague wrote in a July 22 email to airport board members. “Not a huge issue, but one that needed to be addressed.”
Sprague said he reached out to the airport board’s attorney, Brian Werst, to figure out why the two documents weren’t identical.
French said Werst added the line after the board had approved the resolution because the Spokane International Airport master plan included the same language.
“Mr. Werst explained that he changed the language in the Felts Field resolution so as to harmonize with the 2018 resolution adopting the Master Plan for Spokane International Airport,” French wrote in his slideshow.
The airport board wasn’t asking the city or the county to delegate significant authority. Instead, the board was asking for permission to make relatively minor updates to the Felts Field master plan – known as “pen and ink” revisions – to reflect new construction and other completed developments.
Kuney says that once she learned what the delegation of authority entailed, she had no issue with it.
The county and city approved the resolution, with additional clarification added to explain the “pen and ink” revisions, in August and September.
Who has the authority, and concern about open public meetings?
The issue was short-lived, but French said it caused significant damage and that Sprague and Kuney acted inappropriately.
In his July 22 email, Sprague said he was surprised that the incident “has since transformed into an issue of such great import as to warrant an attack on my character and appeals for my removal from the Board.”
French’s two primary claims are that Sprague overstepped his authority as airport board chair by contacting Werst and created a hostile work environment for Krauter when he asked Werst to exclude the CEO from discussions about the inconsistency between the two resolutions.
Sprague, who provided only a short written statement in response to an interview request, explained in his July 22 email that he asked for Krauter’s exclusion because the board’s attorney reports to the board, not the CEO.
“Al has attributed some sort of malicious motive to my request,” Sprague wrote in his email. “I have no idea what sort of motive Al might have contrived, but this is a misunderstanding that could have easily been resolved with a simple phone call.”
French says he – the board’s vice chair – then received a complaint from Krauter, who said Sprague had created a hostile work environment and committed “tortious interference” of his employment contract.
“This was serious stuff,” French said in an interview, adding that Krauter hired an attorney because of the situation.
Sprague resigned as airport board chair effective July 25, citing pressure from French. He also submitted his resignation from the board, effective Jan. 31, 2023.
In his July 22 email, Sprague said the incident was the most stressful of his career and shared that French met twice with his boss, Avista CEO Dennis Vermillion, to make allegations against him.
“I have worked with elected officials and served on many government and nonprofit commissions and boards for 35 years, and I have never been subjected to anything that is comparable,” he wrote.
Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs, the city’s elected representative on the airport board, said he couldn’t go into detail about the incident.
“My experience is that everybody on the board has been very professional in their work for the airport and everything is done very professionally,” Beggs said. “There seemed to be a communications issue earlier this year that got resolved and I’m looking forward to everybody just continuing their good work.”
While most of French’s presentation dealt with Sprague, the commissioner also attacked Kuney. He first criticized her during the county commission’s June 27 meeting, before the county had transitioned from three to five commissioners.
French said during the June 27 meeting that Kuney never should have shared with Sprague her concerns about the delegation of authority provision. Instead, French said she should only have talked about it with him, since he’s the county’s elected representative on the airport board.
“If they had merely contacted me, I could have addressed the issue and we could have moved forward without any drama,” French said in an interview.
Kuney pointed out in the June 27 meeting that discussing her concerns with French would have been illegal under the state’s Open Public Meetings Act.
Per state law, whenever a quorum of elected representatives meets to discuss official business, the meeting must be open to the public. When Spokane County only had three commissioners, that law prevented any two of them from discussing government issues outside of public meetings.
French told Kuney that she could have gotten around the Open Public Meetings Act by talking with Spokane County CEO Scott Simmons, who in turn could have relayed her questions to him.
In addition to criticizing her for talking with Sprague, French says Kuney shouldn’t have had questions about the delegation of authority sentence because in 2018 she had approved an update to the Spokane International Airport master plan that contained the same language.
“I’m just asking for clarification,” Kuney said in the June 27 meeting. “That’s all I’m asking for.”
French also says Kuney “overstepped her bounds” and violated county policy when she pulled a vote on the Felts Field master plan resolution from the commissioners’ June 28 agenda without first consulting with him and Commissioner Josh Kerns. Kuney, the chair of the Spokane County Commission, said in an interview that the chair has the authority to set meeting agendas.
Nomination put on hold
Toward the end of his presentation, French made a case for why Simpson should replace Sprague on the airport board and said the other two candidates had no experience that would benefit the airport.
Clyde Haase, of Haase Landscapes, and Kelly Fukai, a vice president of government and community affairs for the Washington Technology Industry Association who until this fall worked as the airport’s manager of public and external affairs, have also applied to fill Sprague’s seat. French specifically objected to Fukai because Krauter was recently her boss.
“To appoint a previous employee to be a board member over the current CEO is problematic on so many levels and could be interpreted as a hostile act,” French said.
The slideshow didn’t convince Jordan to withdraw his motion.
“My motion is for more time, and I think you’re making my argument for me by providing all of this history,” he told French.
Despite initially resisting it, French ended up voting in favor of Jordan’s motion, which passed unanimously.
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