Expecting more from the county

By Shireene Hale

(Editor’s note: In the July 22 edition of the Journal the article “Wetlands permit resolved on San Juan Island property ” described San Juan County Council’s statement that San Juan County Manager Mike Thomas was not in the wrong in reference to a wetlands evaluation on a San Juan property.

In last week’s edition of the Journal you can find the article “San Juan County sued for alleged withholding of public record files,” which details a lawsuit filed Oct. 9 against San Juan County and county prosecutor Randall Gaylord that alleges the county and its employees violated Washington State’s Public Records Act. To see the documents mentioned in this column visit this story at www.sanjuanjournal.com.)

A public records lawsuit is the latest fallout resulting from county manager Mike Thomas ordering staff to issue a building permit without a required wetland report.

To recap, rather than supporting staff in doing the job they were hired and trained to do, Thomas directed them to issue a building permit for a project near a wetland without the report required by the county code.

This report is necessary when building projects are within 300 feet of a wetland to ensure that construction will occur outside the wetland and its protective buffer. The report must be prepared by a qualified wetlands professional and in this instance an abbreviated reconnaissance report would have been adequate.

After a neighbor, Sheryl Albritton, filed a complaint with the Department of Ecology, and a staff member filed a complaint alleging improper government action, prosecuting attorney Randall Gaylord conducted an investigation.

In his March 11, 2015 memo he stated, “The instruction to issue the permit without a wetland reconnaissance report is contrary to county ordinance and policy.”

Even after the Prosecuting Attorney’s report was released, the county council and county manager did not accept responsibility for the problems caused by not following the required process. Instead of mending relationships with their staff and citizens, and moving on to more important business, the council wrote their own report, riddled with errors, omissions, and misleading statements, exonerating county management from wrong doing and blaming the staff for the time wasted on this issue.

This whole situation could have been avoided. At the time the permit was reviewed, a discussion with either the planning staff or the county land use attorney would have made it clear that the wetland report was required. Had the staff been allowed to follow the requirements of the county code, neighbors and employees would have been treated fairly, and minimal time and money would have been spent on this issue.

Instead everyone involved is unhappy; significant time and money has been wasted (including that of staff, concerned neighbors and citizens); and this incident diminished the trust citizens and employees have in their county government.

It is important that government officials follow adopted laws, regulations and policies so people are treated fairly and outcomes are predictable. If they don’t like the regulations, they can go through the public process and change them.

It is also important that government officials act within the limitations of their authority and expertise; seek and respect the knowledge of their colleagues; foster good communication; work constructively as part of a team; and take responsibility for mistakes. In the future I hope to see better performance from our county council and their managers.