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Monday, March 4, 2024
March 4, 2024

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Clark County Council walks fine line on permit center

Former chair of freeholders raises concerns that county charter not being fulfilled

By , Columbian political reporter
4 Photos
Jodi Creamer, left, and Trina Siebart are the front-line staff at the Clark County Permit Center, which county officials are currently seeking to overhaul.
Jodi Creamer, left, and Trina Siebart are the front-line staff at the Clark County Permit Center, which county officials are currently seeking to overhaul. Photo Gallery

When a consultant’s report released earlier this spring partially blamed members of the Clark County Council for unpredictability and dysfunction at the county’s troubled permit center, they pushed back, saying the problem is more complicated.

The permit center, which reviews and signs off on construction and remodeling projects, has long been criticized for being slow and applying inconsistent standards to applications. The consultant’s report faulted councilors for intervening on behalf of constituents and interfering in the process and operating contrary to the county charter.

A review of emails, obtained through a public records request, paints a more nuanced picture of councilors seeking aid for irritated constituents during a time when the county has lacked permanent executive leadership. The emails show that while councilors have taken an interest in the permit center, they don’t show them violating the county charter by issuing directions to staff.

However, Nan Henriksen, former chair of the Clark County Board of Freeholders, said that interactions between some members of the council and the permit center make her concerned that the county charter still isn’t being fully implemented.

In 2014, Clark County voters passed the charter that changed the county commission, which had administrative power, to a county council with solely legislative authority. It also created an appointed manager who would oversee county functions without the interference of elected officials possibly seeking favor for constituents.

“It sounds like there are those on the council who are still acting as commissioners rather than councilors,” said Henriksen.

But councilors said they’ve just sought information on behalf of constituents and haven’t meddled in the process.

“I believe citizens’ concern is case work,” said Clark County Council Chair Marc Boldt in a text. “And I have always believed good case work leads to good policy.”

What the emails say

The county released 84 pages of emails in response to a request for emails between the council and the permit center. The emails include communications between constituents frustrated with the permit center and councilors, who reached out to other county administrators on their behalf.

In April of last year, Boldt emailed then-Permit Services Manager Chuck Crider and Chris Horne, then chief civil deputy prosecutor, about a delayed permit. His email included one line of text, “Is this done yet?”

In October of last year, Boldt responded to an email from a couple who complained that the county denied their plans for a firewall in their family’s new home after a seven-month delay in getting their building permit.

“I’m very sorry,” wrote Boldt. “Let me know about the specific delay.”

The email received a response from Mike Curtis, the current permit services manager, as well as county Fire Marshal Jon Dunaway and Director of Community Development Marty Snell, who has since resigned.

In November of last year, Linnea LaRocque, the council’s administrative assistant, sent an email to Snell on behalf of Councilor Eileen Quiring and copied Curtis. The email’s importance was labeled “High.” She wrote that a constituent had written “again with unpleasantness” regarding the permit center and asked that someone follow up on the behalf of Quiring, whom she described as being very busy.

Curtis responded with an overview of the situation with the permit. He stated he would send his response to the building official and would contact the constituent. Records show that LaRocque also sent other emails to Curtis and Snell inquiring on behalf of constituents having trouble with the permit center. Quiring was also included on those emails.

Quiring, who represents a large unincorporated district, said that she has contacted county staff to get information on behalf of a constituent and has never issued demands.

“If I have a constituent who comes to me because they are having issues, it’s a cry for help, and I just want to move that along,” she said.

Quiring also said that she has never physically gone to the permit center to inquire about a delayed permit.

However, Boldt has. In a follow-up text, Boldt, a former county commissioner, said he goes to the permit center to say “Hi,” or if he can’t figure out the right person with whom to follow up.

Boldt also said that he will contact the permit center to find information on behalf of constituents but doesn’t give staff orders. A former freeholder who helped write the charter, Boldt said he hasn’t crossed any lines.

“If I would have sent an email saying, ‘this permit is fine, I want you to approve this today,’ that would be inappropriate,” said Boldt, who added that it’s essential for elected officials to maintain the respect of county staff.

Interim County Manager Jim Rumpeltes is copied in just a handful of emails released by the county. Boldt and Quiring said they were just seeking answers to questions from staff and only needed to keep the county’s top executive apprised.

“Jim has enough to do,” said Boldt.

Henriksen said that while councilors should be responsive, they should instead refer complaints to the county manager for follow-up. She said they should also be clearing their communications with staff with the county manager.

“I think the quicker the county councilors get out of the loop and get the citizen connected with the right person in the right department, then the better off they are, because they’ve educated the constituent that this administrative system will work,” said Henriksen.

She said that the council should instead be focused on writing policies that will enhance the functioning and fairness of county government. She said that when the councilors ask staff to check on a constituent’s permit, they risk pushing it ahead of others who have been waiting.

“Then you are back in commissioner days, which is unfortunate,” she said.

Councilor Julie Olson is included in multiple email threads. But the only email she sent was in February to Snell and Boldt. She forwarded an email from a frustrated constituent and wrote that it raised some points “that maybe we can look at with regard to process.”

Olson said she’s never called the permit center and only communicated with Snell and Rumpeltes regarding it. She said she forwarded the email because it raised a broader issue with the center’s processes.

Councilor John Blom, who represents a large swath of Vancouver that doesn’t need the permit center to sign off on projects, is included in emails. But he only sent one email to Crider, giving him a heads up that a that a constituent would be contacting him.

“Our role is to keep the permit center running smoothly for everyone and not handpick projects,” said Blom, who added that complaints should be used to raise questions about broader changes in county policy.

Councilor Jeanne Stewart, whose district includes a large portion of Vancouver, is also copied on emails. Her most direct involvement seems to be emails where she sought information on behalf of a constituent who was trying to build an accessory dwelling unit.

Going forward

Clark County has been without a permanent county manager since the council fired Mark McCauley in May of last year. In April, Snell resigned from the department.

Since then, the county has hired Mitch Nickolds as an interim replacement for Snell. Counselors said Nickolds is actively overhauling the permit center. The county is also finalizing a contract with Shawn Henessee, a longtime local government administrator, to become the new county manager.

Henriksen said she hopes the new manager is permanent and empowered.

“The manager is supposed to push back,” she said. “That’s by design.”

Columbian political reporter