Planning Office Responds to Allegations

By Beacon Staff

After weeks of hearing allegations of illegal activity and fiscal abuses, the Flathead County Planning Office recently responded to many of its detractors’ specific complaints for the first time.

Planning and Zoning Director Jeff Harris gave the county commission a report on July 20 answering the written and verbal claims made against his office at a commission meeting held earlier in the month. The report, which is hundreds of pages long and several inches thick, includes each allegation, Harris’ response and related documentation like receipts and planning documents.

“I’ve heard of other claims or rumors out there,” Harris said, “but we stuck to the July 1 meeting because it’s documented. It’s impossible to respond to innuendo or non-specific complaints.”

The county commission requested the response at the early July meeting. Since then, however, commissioners Jim Dupont and Dale Lauman voted to hire a private investigator to examine the office. Harris finished his report – though it’s no longer clear what role it will play in the debate.

At the July 1 meeting, a group of citizens took the planning office to task over several issues including the neighborhood planning process, department spending and questions about how past development applications have been handled.

Kalispell attorney and mayoral candidate Tammi Fisher said, among other allegations, that the department’s ineptitude had cost her past clients – Bruce Tutvedt, Gary Krueger and Randy Leavitt – extraordinary amounts of time and money.

In his response, Harris pointed out several inconsistencies or omissions in the claims. In the case of a conditional use permit for Tutvedt’s gravel pit, Harris said he denied the permit based on an opinion from the county attorney’s office and details how lawsuits, including a Supreme Court decision, complicated the process.

As for Fisher’s claims that Kruger “cannot get a fair hearing (for a batch plant application) because Jeff Harris has dictated he’s not entitled” to one, Harris points out that the board of adjustment’s public meeting on the application was July 7 – almost a week after the allegations were made. “It’s hard to say there’s been an unfair hearing when it hasn’t happened,” Harris said.

The board of adjustment denied the application, saying it didn’t meet requirements in the West Valley zoning district.

Fisher alleged that the planning office participated in extortion when it determined Leavitt had violated lakeshore regulations. Harris’ account says Leavitt laid approximately 120 cubic yards of gravel on the shore – far exceeding the permitted approximately eight cubic yards.

Also at the meeting, former Flathead County Commissioner Dale Williams described spending within the department as “appalling” and said an audit was needed. He claimed expense reports from the office were incomplete and questioned expenditures, including the use of county credit cards for food items, mailings and hotel rooms.

For example, when planners attended a professional conference in Las Vegas, Williams said they upgraded out of a basic room to one with a “Jacuzzi at the foot of a bed” and a “walk-in shower big enough for a small army.” “Why should we lap them in luxury?” he asked.

The planning department’s response includes receipts and other documentation explaining each of Williams’ claims. In the case of the Las Vegas convention, there are receipts for three planners – two male and one female – spending $135 plus taxes and fees for two standard rooms at the conference hotel. The hotel supervisor confirmed there was no walk-in shower or Jacuzzi in the rooms.

Another frequent claim against the department is that it violated public meeting and open record laws during neighborhood planning efforts in Lakeside.

In his response, Harris agrees that some of the volunteer committee’s meetings were held in private residences and not properly noticed. “The planning office recognized committee meetings were not being properly noticed (and) took steps to educate the committee regarding public notice,” he wrote, adding that the committee corrected their mistakes and held more than 22 properly noticed meetings.

As for the private Yahoo! group, Harris, like committee members, said it was meant to facilitate document sharing and organization. He stressed that the committee also maintained a public Web site to share information as well as public meetings.

The report in its entirety is available at the county planning office.

“We’re obviously anxious to be part of this review,” Harris said. “We think that if people take the time to go through the documentation, they’ll find many of the claims are unreasonable.”

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