He wasn’t exactly a squinty-eyed stranger.
But Stan McNutt – a self-styled “range rider” – came into town Monday looking to act as a “troubleshooter” for a Spokane Valley Planning Commission in need of some guidance.
The former deputy city manager and current consultant for the International/City County Management Association visited with the commission for just over two hours in order to help devise some new rules and policies for self-governance. McNutt was called in by city officials after planning commission members did not excuse one of its members from a meeting last month.
Commissioner Marcia Sands, a geologist with the Department of Ecology, has been asked by the state agency to recuse herself from any and all discussions dealing with the adoption of the Shoreline Master Plan. As the document is a state-mandated requirement, Ecology wishes to remove any appearances of a conflict of interest.
On April 19, the majority of the seven-member Planning Commission – apparently vexed due to her inability to participate – voted to not excuse Sands. Six unexcused absences could be cause for Sands’ dismissal from the advisory board.
On Monday, Sands told the board that if she had her druthers she would just as soon help out on shoreline work as she has a lot of knowledge on the subject.
“This is probably the one thing I really would like to be able to participate,” she said. “I have more scientific knowledge than anybody here.”
McNutt suggested that the commission consider adopting a statement of guiding principles. He also suggested that the members should excuse a member if he or she deems that there is a conflict on a particular subject being discussed. That member then can return when talk returns to other matters.
“This happens more than you imagine,” he told the commissioners. “Cities everywhere have to deal with it.”
McNutt stressed that, as appointed community representatives, the Planning Commission members must adhere to the same rules of public disclosure as the City Council. They must also be careful not to discuss city business when four (a quorum) or more are together.
“The (Open Public Meetings Act) forbids a quorum if city business is to be dicussed” outside of an advertised public meeting, McNutt said.
“We are all here to serve the public,” he said, adding that scrutiny by the public and the press is necessary in “a democratic society.”
Bill Bates, chairman of the Planning Commission, said that much of the membership of the body is new and “trying to do yeoman’s work.” However, city staff or the council did not brief them thoroughly enough on procedure.
“I don’t think we got good information,” he said. “We’ve been flying blind. We asked questions but didn’t get any answers.”
Steven Neill said he would prefer a hard-and-fast rule for dismissal of a fellow member if they find themselves unable to participate for whatever reason.
“Not addressing attendance is ridiculous,” he said. “Every job I’ve ever had, if you don’t show up you’re fired.”
McNutt advised that “the past is the past,” and that the commission should focus on a policy moving forward that “doesn’t box themselves in” by being overly cumbersome or detailed.
Planning Commission member Rustin Hall said that in the end, it’s less about rules and more about intention.
“You can’t legislate ethical behavior,” he said.
Fellow commissioner John Carroll agreed, adding that ever member has certain aspects of their background that could be considered a conflict of interest – after all, they all live in the same community – but such issues need to be put aside in the act of public service. If certain members of the commission are unable to do that, “they shouldn’t be up here.”
Planning Commission members were also advised by McNutt not to converse with one another via e-mail, as once a fourth member was drawn into such an electronic conversation then, again, it would again be considered an unadvertised public meeting.
“The public has a right to our communications when we start talking about city business,” McNutt said. “If we don’t support that, we’re in the wrong business.”