For local developers and neighborhood leaders, Planning Director Scott Chesney was one of the most well-known faces at Spokane City Hall. Last week, they found out that he was ousted the same way people who've never met him did: a six-sentence press release. The headline: "National Search to Replace Planning Director."
"I'm like, 'Wait a minute. What happened to our current planning director?'" says Michael Cathcart, a lobbyist for the Spokane Home Builders Association, which represents developers throughout the county.
In the days since, developers and city councilmembers have called for an explanation and received little. Members of the administration, including Mayor David Condon and Chesney's former boss, Business and Developer Services Director Jan Quintrall, say it's a "personnel matter" they're not able to discuss. Chesney, who started at the city in 2011, did not return calls from the Inlander but told the Spokesman-Review by text message last week that he "resigned due to the mayor's loss of confidence in me."
That's led to a spiral of speculation about a clash between Quintrall and Chesney and an administration on the defensive.
"I had a feeling that over the last several [months], from stuff that Jan said to me ... that they weren't getting along very well," says Councilwoman Amber Waldref.
In a press briefing Monday, Condon again refused to discuss specifics but implied Chesney was getting too much credit for recent advances the city has made around planning, like construction growth and decreased permit application wait times.
"We are committed to growing the city in a responsible way, both financially and environmentally, and this is a team effort," Condon said. "Not a single person is the sole reason for what we're doing. ... There are a handful of developers that are concerned because they've seen the positive outcomes and, again, is that all because of one person?"
Developers and liberal city councilmembers — often on opposite sides of political issues — find themselves together in wondering aloud what happened. The mayor met with a small handful of developers Friday but gave them no indication of why Chesney had been asked to leave.
Jim Frank, whose company is behind the quickly growing Kendall Yards development, calls Chesney "the best planning director Spokane has had in 30 years" who "had a vision for where things need to go." Frank has been among the most outspoken calling for the rehiring of Chesney. But the mayor said Monday "there will not be a job offered back."
Meanwhile, volunteers on the city's Plan Commission and its neighborhood councils say they were also surprised by the news and unsure of what Chesney's departure means for the future of planning projects in the city. (Quintrall says projects will continue without delay.)
"I think this is another case of Mayor Condon getting rid of anybody in City Hall that is pro-neighborhood," says Colleen Gardner, co-chair of the Chief Garry Park Neighborhood Council. She points to another employee who was recently fired from the community development department and what she characterizes as increasing city expectations of the neighborhoods to do their own planning without increased resources.
Last week, the city council wrote a letter of recommendation for Chesney's future employment, saying he "turned a culture of 'no' into a culture of 'yes, we can do better.'"
The administration has since briefed the council in an executive session about Chesney's ouster, but that left councilmembers unable to say much about what they'd learned. After double-checking it with city legal personnel, Council President Ben Stuckart gave his one-sentence statement to the Inlander Monday evening. "After meeting with the administration in executive session regarding a personnel matter," he says carefully, "I stand by the letter of recommendation I wrote for Scott Chesney 100 percent." ♦
– Daniel Walters contributed to this report.
It's a Personnel Matter
So far, city spokesman Brian Coddington has shrugged off questions about Scott Chesney's performance, while pointing to a state statute allowing performance review discussions to take place in closed-door executive sessions.
Attorney Breean Beggs, however, says there's no statute preventing employers from giving accurate statements of employee performance, though most attorneys tell employers to keep quiet anyway, to avoid providing fodder for libel, defamation or wrongful termination suits. Legally, Beggs says, city officials could talk about Chesney if they wanted to.
"If I were representing a private employer, I would recommend that they not talk about it," says Beggs. "But with a public employer, it's not as easy, because the public has a right to know."
In fact, when there's a "legitimate public interest," state statutes require cities like Spokane to disclose documents like employee evaluations upon request. (In 2000, for example, courts found that Spokane City Manager Bill Pupo's employee evaluations counted as public records because of his performance was a legitimate subject of debate.)
— DANIEL WALTERS