Wednesday, November 30, 2016

State auditor's office clears Spokane Valley of wrongdoing in firing of city manager

Posted By on Wed, Nov 30, 2016 at 4:31 PM

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When Spokane Valley City Council voted 4-3 to oust city manager Mike Jackson in February while offering no explanation for the move, many citizens were outraged. Two councilmembers — Dean Grafos and Chuck Hafner — who voted against Jackson's firing eventually left their seats, citing the decision as a major reason for leaving.

Comments and actions made by the council majority — Mayor Rod Higgins, Deputy Mayor Arne Woodard and councilmen Ed Pace and Sam Wood — did little to alleviate concerns that they may have violated the state's Open Public Meetings Act in the way they decided to get rid of Jackson. In a March interview with the Inlander, Pace admitted that the week before Jackson was fired, Higgins and Woodard told Jackson that he should resign — potentially marking a decision made outside of a public meeting. Email records later obtained by the Spokesman-Review revealed that councilmembers emailed about the city manager before ousting Jackson, furthering the notion that the decision was a violation of state law.

But an investigation completed this month by the state auditor's office has addressed those questions. The Spokane Valley City Council did not do anything inappropriate, according to the evidence the auditor's office reviewed.

Grafos isn't satisfied.

"I'm very disappointed that the state of Washington failed, or chose not to recognize, the spirit of the law in regard to the secretive, serial meetings and disrespect by the council for the citizens of Spokane Valley and their tax dollars," Grafos says in response to the findings.

The auditor's office explained their findings in a letter to the current city manager, Mark Calhoun, dated Nov. 10, 2016. The office says there were 14 instances where there was "communication between a quorum of board members," but all instances were a "passive receipt of information."

The "passive receipt of information," says audit manager Brad White, includes the email that Mayor Higgins received from former Spokane County Undersheriff Dave Wiyrick suggesting that Jackson would  "need to be put under control" shortly before Jackson's ouster. Higgins forwarded that to Wood, Pace and Woodard, but not the other three councilmembers.

But because only Pace responded to the email, that does not represent a quorum, and therefore does not violate state law. If Wood and Woodard would have responded, it likely would have violated open meetings laws, according to White.

As for the mayor and deputy mayor approaching Jackson and telling him he should resign days before his ouster, White said there was no documentation of any encounter Jackson had with the mayor and deputy mayor for the auditor's office to review.

"We can only look at things officially documented," White says.

A total of 10 citizens shared concerns with the auditor's office. Aside from accusing the city council of discussing city business outside of public meetings, they accused the city of paying Jackson $320,000 more than he should have received "to go quietly" (Jackson, as part of the deal, agreed not to disparage officials). Finally, the citizens alleged that the city intentionally and illegally diverted $270,000 in community development block grant funds to other governmental entities.

Responding to the allegation that the city paid Jackson to go quietly, the auditor's office found that the "main reason" for the larger payment was because of negotiations allowing him to be paid 18 months of salary and his entire sick leave balance. In regards to the final allegation of diverting money to other governmental entities, the auditor's office found that the transfer of funds was "not inappropriate."

White says the auditor's office took the allegations seriously.

"I think we did as thorough an investigation as we can," White says. "We were not looking to come out on the side of the city, or of the citizens. We have to go by what the state laws are, and we didn't find any violations."
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