Group Circulates Petition to Investigate County Planning Office

By Beacon Staff

If a group of Flathead citizens have their way, County Planning and Zoning Director Jeff Harris may soon be out of a job.

At a meeting hosted Monday night by American Dream Montana, a conservative, pro-property rights group, people leveled allegations against the director and his staff, including violation of state open record and meeting laws and misuse of public funds.

A petition circulated at the meeting called for the county commission to immediately suspend Harris without pay until an independent investigation can be conducted, determining whether the planning department has been acting within state and local laws. The petition also asks commissioners to sequester all computers, public and private, used for work related to neighborhood planning in Lakeside in order “to prevent further destruction of the public record.”

The meeting’s organizers plan to present the petition to the commission Wednesday morning.

More than 150 people attended the informational meeting at Kalispell’s Red Lion Hotel, where Harris’ detractors outlined their complaints.

After a lesson in Montana’s open record and meeting laws from Columbia Falls Board of Adjustment member Olie Ervin, the audience heard from former Flathead County planning board member Charles Lapp.

Lapp, who was part of the planning board during the recent update of the county growth policy, said the board regarded the neighborhood planning section as the “most serious part,” saving it to work on last. In its final draft, the board included a provision requiring a petition with 60 percent of affected landowners support to begin the neighborhood planning process. The commission, Lapp said, later changed that to read “a clear majority.

“That’s where some of the fussing has come from: what does that mean?” he said.

As Lapp envisioned it, the growth policy required citizens to go door-to-door gauging interest before the county got involved.

“I don’t think there was any thought by anyone involved in writing the growth policy that this process wouldn’t be totally open and transparent to people in the community,” Lapp said.

Donna Thornton, however, contends that’s exactly what’s happened.

“I think you’ll understand why I was so angry at the Somers meeting,” Thornton said, referring to a Somers informational meeting where residents opposed to planning efforts there confronted Harris. Sheriff’s deputies responded when the crowd became unruly and the meeting disintegrated to the point of profanity-laced diatribes.

Last week, Thornton and her husband, Dennis, joined 22 others in filing a joint suit against the county over neighborhood planning efforts in Somers and Lakeside. The group contends the county knowingly held private meetings, maintained a “secret Web site,” and violated state open meeting and record laws.

Thornton echoed many of those concerns Monday night.

In both the Somers and Lakeside planning efforts, Thornton said the county planning office has failed to notify her despite the fact that her property was within the affected areas. It’s taken months, she said, to get requests for pubic information.

In Lakeside, planning has occurred, she alleged, largely in private meetings and through a members-only Yahoo e-mail group made up of Lakeside Neighborhood Plan Committee members and county staff.

Adding to her complaints of lacking transparency, Thornton also said Monday night the planning office has carelessly spent public funds, including exceeding its daily travel per diem in many cases. Planners, she said, have also circulated inappropriate meetings on their work accounts.

“Jeff Harris has drug this county into the gutter in my opinion,” Thornton, a property owner in the Lakeside-Somers area, said, adding that he’s to blame for misleading committee volunteers.

County officials and neighborhood plan committee members have denied many of the allegations, arguing that the public has had ample opportunity to weigh in on any planning decisions and that many of the complaints are from people aimed at shutting down any planning efforts.

Copies of Thornton’s presentation, including documents she acquired from the county, are available at InstyPrints in downtown Kalispell for $5.

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