Planning Office Left in the Dark During Investigation

By Beacon Staff

The Flathead County commissioners say they expect the report from a third-party investigation into the County Planning and Zoning Office any day, causing concern for planning officials who say they weren’t contacted at all during the inquiry into their department.

The Kalispell-based Moonlighting Detective Agency was hired by the county in July to look into complaints against the planning office and its director, Jeff Harris. The commissioners extended investigator Ike Eisentraut’s contract in early October with the expectation that the investigation would be complete by the end of the month. As of this writing, Eisentraut’s report had not been delivered to the commission.

Commissioner Joe Brenneman said he has had no contact with the investigator, but hopes to see the report in the near future.

“I’ve been expecting it now for about three weeks,” Brenneman said.

Commissioner Jim Dupont said at the end of last week that Eisentraut is finished with his investigative fieldwork and that he expects the report “any day.”

“I’m certainly not compelled to rush him,” Dupont said. “If you’re going to do it, do it right. Hopefully he did. We’ll see when we get it.”

The person who answered the phone at the Moonlighting Detective Agency said Eisentraut would not discuss the investigation with the Beacon at this point.

County planning officials said they were surprised the investigation was complete because they were never contacted.

“We don’t even know what the allegations are. We know nothing other than what we responded to,” Harris said. “I would think that we should be given an opportunity to review the complaints and formulate a response.”

Harris was at the center of a series of complaints brought forth by a group of citizens during the summer. The complaints led to a lawsuit and a series of explosive public meetings, as well as a petition for Harris’ resignation.

Commissioners Dupont and Dale Lauman voted to hire Eisentraut to look into allegations made against the planning office, including illegal neighborhood planning efforts and disregard for open meeting laws. Brenneman was absent for the vote.

The planning office has already responded to these allegations, but Dupont and Lauman said a third-party investigation would provide more credibility to the situation. Eisentraut was hired at a rate of $75 an hour, with an initial funding cap of $5,000.

But in September, he explained in a letter to the commission that he had reached his $5,000 limit and had spent the bulk of his time learning the ins and outs of the county planning rules and regulations. The letter also said the seven initial allegations against the department had ballooned to 20, and Eisentraut needed more time to flesh them out. The commissioners voted to extend his contract by another $5,000.

The pending report will also have an impact on a lawsuit seeking to derail the proposed Lakeside neighborhood plan. The lawsuit, brought in June by landowners from Lakeside and Somers, alleges that the county participated in secret planning efforts and flouted open meeting laws, breaking state and federal laws.

Legal representation on both sides of the lawsuit agreed at an Oct. 16 show-cause hearing in district court to wait until the investigation is complete before a judge should decide if an injunction on the neighborhood plan is warranted. It was also decided that the Flathead County Planning Board would not act on the Lakeside neighborhood plan in the meantime, but the Lakeside Neighborhood Planning Committee could continue working on the proposed plan.

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