How a fire marshal and a building inspector were swept up into the politically charged Ridpath development imbroglio

click to enlarge Today, the Ridpath is up and running and waiting for its final, official, certificate of occupancy to be approved.
Today, the Ridpath is up and running and waiting for its final, official, certificate of occupancy to be approved.

It was a snowy, foggy afternoon in the waning days of 2017 — the last Friday before New Year's Eve — when then-Assistant Spokane Fire Marshal Megan Phillips arrived at the Ridpath building.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars were riding on what she had to say.

Investors were eager to begin benefitting from the downtown project's historic tax credits. So they put in deadlines in their agreement with the developer: If the Ridpath didn't get a temporary certificate of occupancy for enough apartment units by the end of 2017, the group led by local developer Ron Wells would have to pay considerable financial penalties.

But as Phillips walked through the halls of the old hotel, she says the renovations weren't even close.

On the third floor alone, there were plumbing leaks, exposed electrical wires and capped sprinkler heads. Big electrical cords snaked through the hallways. Exit doors were padlocked. The sinks didn't work. Neither did the heat. Some apartments were missing doors, cabinets, flooring and running water. Ultimately, Phillips' report tallied more than 50 deficiencies with the project, stretching across four pages.

Her assessment was later confirmed by three other Spokane fire marshals. The Ridpath missed its deadline, and it would be months before it met the Fire Department's standards.

Today, the Ridpath is humming along. Renters have moved in. But a recent examination of public records, obtained by the Inlander, shows just how messy the fallout over Phillips' inspection became. The resulting turmoil struck at the ongoing debate over how accommodating regulators should be toward influential developers.

For starters, the records show that a city building inspector had signed off on the electrical and plumbing portions for the Ridpath's temporary certificate of occupancy — even though those portions weren't remotely completed.

"I was flabbergasted," Phillips says.

Not only that, but the records show that building inspector told his superior he'd signed off on the certificate because of "political pressure."

Yet, ultimately, it wasn't the building inspector who was subjected to a formal investigation.

Phillips was.

click to enlarge City Council President Ben Stuckart has been publicly critical of regulators like city fire marshals and the Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency for their impact on significant projects. - DANIEL WALTERS PHOTO
Daniel Walters photo
City Council President Ben Stuckart has been publicly critical of regulators like city fire marshals and the Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency for their impact on significant projects.

'A RICH GUY'

Everyone had a stake in the Ridpath's success. Vacant for nearly a decade, the former hotel had become an empty husk, a blight on downtown Spokane.

So in April of 2017, the Spokane City Council placed a bet on developer Ron Wells' plans to turn the Ridpath into apartments, providing $1.75 million in financing for the project.

It wasn't a surprise that, after the Ridpath failed its fire inspection at the end of 2017, Wells reached out to City Council President Ben Stuckart, an urbanist who shared Wells' passion for a denser, taller downtown. Wells complained about Phillips, the inspector, in particular.

Wells' architect, Ron Wendle, wasn't at the inspection himself. But after talking to several workers who were, Wendle penned a second-hand summary. It claimed that Phillips had expressed a "moral objection" to putting "her name to a document just for a tax break for a rich guy," and cited Ron Wells by name.

Wells sent the summary to Stuckart, and Stuckart forwarded it to Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer and Chief Financial Officer Gavin Cooley.

"If you read toward the end, this is unacceptable," Stuckart wrote.

A few weeks later, Stuckart sent another email to Schaeffer, then-Assistant Fire Chief Trisha Wolford and the city administrator, asking the trio of city leaders whether they'd looked into the allegations of "an employee making disparaging remarks about rich people."

Not getting the certificate in 2017, he wrote, "will cost the project $500,000."

So a month after Phillips' Ridpath assessment, Kris Becker, director of development services, asked Wolford and then-Fire Marshal Mike Miller to stay behind after a development meeting.

Wolford has a reputation for taking copious notes, and this meeting was no exception. At that meeting, her notes say, Becker revealed that one of her building inspectors had incorrectly signed off on the Ridpath certificate, citing "political pressure." But the bulk of the meeting focused on the allegations against Phillips.

Becker, the director of development services, wanted to meet individually with each of Wolford's fire inspectors for "fact-finding" and to establish a timeline. To Wolford, it was an odd request, one she considered outside Becker's purview.

And then, according to Wolford's notes and recollection, Becker floated an even more unusual idea: She asked whether the Fire Department would be open to backdating an approved temporary certificate of occupancy for the Ridpath to December 29, 2017.

"Why would you even ask that?" Wolford recalls wondering. "How do you believe that that is an option?"

She says Becker raised a hypothetical: What if a fire inspector was trying to sabotage Ron Wells? What if Phillips made up things on her inspection that weren't true?

But as Wolford understood it, backdating the certificate was a crime. (Today, a Spring Valley, New York, building inspector is facing up to four years in prison, partially for backdating a certificate of occupancy.)

Wolford, a former fire marshal herself, says she was concerned that a city official would alter the document over her objection.

"I was hot," Wolford says. "I thought they were going to go behind my back and that they would change it."

Three times, according to her notes, Wolford stressed that there was no way they would backdate the certificate. Becker assured her that she wouldn't approve the certificate without the Fire Department's signature.

"Whatever the hell's going on here, it's not going on in my department," Wolford says.

WHO INSPECTS THE INSPECTORS?

With the possibility of an official citizen complaint looming, Wolford launched an internal Fire Department investigation into Phillips' alleged comments. Phillips denied ever saying anything insulting about Wells.

"To me, I took it as an underhanded way of trying to compromise my character," Phillips says.

One worker who was present at the inspection spoke with the Inlander on the condition of anonymity. He backs up Phillips' account, noting the building wasn't even close to being ready during her inspection. He says Wells' group wanted to get the temporary certificate approved anyway, with the understanding that nobody would move in until the work had actually been completed, but Phillips said she couldn't morally do that.

Once a certificate is granted, Phillips says, nothing can stop a developer from moving people in.

The Fire Department's internal investigation didn't find any evidence that Phillips had insulted Wells. Yet the investigation underscored how conscious the Fire Department was about the political climate around the Ridpath. Hours before the inspection, the report noted, Phillips briefed the department's deputy chief of operations because she "knew it might get political."

It shows Deputy Fire Marshal Nathan Mulkey scrambling to try to figure if a tax credits deadline applied directly to the Ridpath. In an email, he noted to his boss that if there was no deadline, they'd be under "less pressure to bend on code requirements."

Mulkey says that pressure was coming from Wells' company, not from City Hall. And that's not unusual. Fire marshals expect blowback.

"Anytime we say 'no' to anybody, we assume that it's going to go to the mayor," Phillips says. "Because it almost always does."

After all, Phillips has stepped on more toes than just those of the Ridpath developers in the past two years. Last year, Stuckart spoke with the Inlander about a litany of frustrations he had with Phillips' fire marshal rulings, including issues regarding the Ridpath, Elkfest and the fire pits around the ice ribbon in Riverfront Park. Stuckart argued the issue was a "people problem," not a "code problem," stressing that fire marshalls should stop looking at things so black and white.

Wells didn't respond to an Inlander request for comment last week. But in an interview last year, Wells maintained Phillips had insulted him.

"A fire official shouldn't be going around saying that shit and get away with it," Wells said. "And she did."

He decried "cantankerous, disagreeable" fire inspectors who interpreted the code like "fundamentalist evangelicals," and argued "the Fire Department needs to be dramatically overhauled."

Both Phillips and Fire Chief Schaeffer say the department does what it can to find creative solutions to ease conflict with developers. But ultimately, they note, the fire code is the law.

"Under great pressure we stood our ground, doing what was right," Phillips says about the Ridpath. "Because our job is to preserve life and safety."

THE MYSTERY INSPECTOR

As for the building inspector who claimed that political pressure had caused him to inappropriately sign off on a powerful developer? Ultimately, Becker determined, after talking to him and her employees, that there actually hadn't been direct political pressure put on him.

Becker declined multiple Inlander interview requests, but city spokeswoman Marlene Feist says the building inspector "was counseled that life and safety always come first."

Yet, there was no formal investigation. No notes were taken. Feist says there's no written documentation of the conversations — everything was strictly verbal. Feist refuses to even name the identity of the inspector.

But to Phillips, the inconsistency between their two cases is absurd.

"The person who did the right thing is dragged through the mud," she says. "The person who did the wrong thing, their name is somehow protected."

Some of that may come down to Becker's management philosophy. Public records show that, in the aftermath of a bruising 2016 external investigation into her management practices, Becker had expressed wariness of both independent investigations and the fact that their conclusions, however inaccurate, can "sit in the city's files like a ticking time bomb and be subject to public records requests forever."

Chief Financial Officer Gavin Cooley says there was, indeed, pressure surrounding the Ridpath project. After all, Mayor David Condon's administration prides itself on its ability to pierce through bureaucracy.

So with a vital project like the Ridpath, they pushed to make inspectors available to help meet deadlines. And that included brainstorming solutions, even if that meant briefly raising the possibility of backdating documents.

"The pressure is to get to 'yes' when we can, when it's appropriate," Cooley says. "Is there pressure to inappropriately abrogate public health and safety? Hell no."

Cooley says he's certain that Becker would never do anything unethical and didn't in regard to the Ridpath.

Still, as Phillips points out, the departments under Becker have a built in-tension: They're charged with both paving the way for developments but also erecting obstacles when they're breaking codes.

"The feeling, for a lot of years, is that there's a lot of pressure over there to sign things off, maybe a little bit prematurely,'" Phillips says. "A lot of times we'll be the lone voice in the wilderness, saying, 'Yeah, we have to put a stop to this.' We might be the only people standing firm."

PROMOTIONS AND INDICTMENTS

Few careers appeared to have suffered as a result of the Ridpath drama. Phillips was promoted to fire marshal. Wolford left the city of Spokane to become the fire chief in Maryland. A city reorganization expanded Becker's oversight to also include the parking and code enforcement departments.

And when Stuckart announced he was running for mayor last April, Wells was a member of the audience. But, to be clear, that was before Wells was indicted for an insurance fraud scheme, unconnected to the Ridpath, in December.

Wells is no longer affiliated with the Ridpath, though Stuckart's campaign website still reads "I am proud to have the support of business leaders such as Ron Wells."

And lately, Stuckart's made headlines for a different fight with a regulator over a different downtown project. Last month, the Spokesman-Review reported that Stuckart had accused the Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency of overreach for the fines and delays they imposed upon the long-troubled Otis building rehab.

Stuckart stresses that he's always followed the chain of command with these complaints: He doesn't talk to individual employees about his concerns; he talks to their superiors.

Yet, if Stuckart becomes mayor, he becomes those employees' ultimate superior. Meanwhile, Stuckart says he's considering a policy change: Take the fire marshals away from the Fire Department headquarters and stick them in City Hall to improve communications.

"I think they should be more integrated in with the Building Department officials so there is some congruity," Stuckart says.

Bad idea, Phillips says. She argues the physical distance makes the Fire Department a refuge away from the epicenter of politics and drama inside city corridors.

"I think staying here allows us to avoid a lot of the pressure that is there at City Hall," Phillips says. "It keeps us from being influenced." ♦

This original version of this story misstated the name of Ron Wells' company.

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About The Author

Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, staff writer Daniel Walters is the Inlander's City Hall reporter. But he also reports on a wide swath of other topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.He's reported on deep flaws in the Washington...