Private Investigator Hired to Probe County Planning Office

By Beacon Staff

Flathead County commissioners decided Thursday to hire an independent private investigator to look into allegations of illegal activities within the county’s planning and zoning department.

Commissioners Jim Dupont and Dale Lauman voted unanimously to hire Ike Eisentraut of Moonlighting Detective Agency, a Kalispell-based firm, for the job. Commissioner Joe Brenneman was out on vacation.

“I think it adds credibility to hire someone from outside our system to do it,” Lauman said, adding that detractors wouldn’t be able to call the investigation biased.

Specifically, the commission said Eisentraut will be looking into allegations of improper notification for public meetings and other violations of state open meeting and records laws. His contract with the county is for $75 per hour up to $5,000.

Eisentraut’s contract with the county says he will submit a written report when he finishes the assignment or reaches the spending cap, whichever comes first.

Commissioners said Flathead County Auditor Paula Robinson is in the process of completing a report addressing further claims against the department regarding fiscal abuses. She is reviewing claims, invoices, receipts and credit card charges filed by the planning department since 2007.

Over the past month, a relatively small, but vocal, group of citizens have pushed for drastic changes within the county’s planning department, including suing over neighborhood planning efforts in Lakeside and Somers and circulating a petition demanding Jeff Harris, the department’s director, be suspended.

For its part, the planning department – and supporters from the community – has defended its work, calling the claims “untrue” and “gross misrepresentations.” In an effort to address some of the allegations, the department compiled records of every expense since Harris’ arrival in 2005, and made them available for public review at the planning office.

“Right now, our expenditures are being presented to the public with minimal context and maximum imagination,” Harris said in a press release. “We want everyone to see how we’ve spent the public’s dollars, but it’s important that they get the whole story.”

At earlier meetings, when citizens pushed the commission to hire an outside investigator, Harris said he would support the external inquiry. “If the commission thinks it’s necessary, I’m very open to the idea,” he said.

Meanwhile, a county planning board workshop regarding neighborhood planning was cut short earlier this week when the board’s members learned the meeting was improperly noticed.

The workshop was meant to start discussion on possible revisions to the neighborhood planning section of the county’s growth policy. The commission has asked the board to suggest changes to more clearly define how to get a planning effort started.

At the beginning of the July 14 meeting, board member Jeff Larsen announced the county planning office’s Web site had incorrectly listed the workshop’s time for 9 a.m. instead of 6 p.m. The correct time, however, was on the county’s main online calendar.

Larsen said Commissioner Dupont had called him and suggested the board cancel the workshop. “He thought it was a bum rush on this thing and wanted to get it right,” Larsen said.

A few members of the board pointed out that since the meeting was only a workshop, no action would be taken and the public would still be able to comment on the same issue at meetings in the near future. Also, anyone who may have shown up at the incorrect time in the morning could have inquired at the planning office and would have learned the correct time.

Still, the group eventually decided it was best to postpone the meeting, especially given the current climate surrounding county planning. “I’m afraid it will be more fodder for criticism if we continue,” member Jim Heim said.

The board briefly discussed what issues they wanted to address at their next meeting and adjourned.

The initial online posting of this story misspelled Ike Eisentraut’s last name. The Beacon regrets the error.

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