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Broken Rules

A Millwood councilwoman has resigned, but one question remains: Did the city break the law in appointing her in the first place?

by

Millwood Mayor Kevin Freeman
  • Millwood Mayor Kevin Freeman

Connie Smith hadn't even served as a Millwood city councilwoman for three months when she decided to resign. The issues that would lead to her resignation, however, began before she ever started.

The city of Millwood, sitting south of the Spokane River and northwest of Spokane Valley, has fewer than 2,000 people. Following the death of Councilman Richard Schoen in August 2016, the city council took months to find a replacement. So long, in fact, that by the time the council chose Smith to take the position, the city no longer had the authority to do so.

Smith resigned last month as her appointment to city council was called into question. She cited ongoing harassment, threats and vandalism to her home. Millwood Mayor Kevin Freeman announced her resignation Feb. 14.

"It is unusual, in the city of Millwood, that we would have that happen with the council position," Freeman said.

The council position will be left vacant until the next election.

"That is done," Freeman said, moving on to the next item.

But the questions about the process by which the city appointed Smith don't appear to be going away. Not only did the city violate state law while appointing Smith to the council, emails obtained by the Inlander also suggest that the city tried to avoid a potential conflict of interest by waiting to appoint her until the city finalized a deal for a piece of property she was selling as a realtor. The same emails leave questions about whether the city also violated the state's open meetings law.

MISSING THE DEADLINE

Once the council had a vacancy, Millwood had 90 days to appoint a replacement before its authority ended and it became Spokane County's duty to appoint a replacement, according to state law.

The cutoff for Millwood was Oct. 16. Smith was the only person to apply for the position.

A month before that cutoff, on Sept. 13, the mayor suggested that the council vote on Smith's appointment in its next meeting. On Sept. 14, City Clerk Tom Richardson emailed Smith, congratulating her, prematurely, for being "selected" to fill the vacancy, according to email records provided to the Inlander by Spencer Harrington, a Millwood resident and an attorney. But the council had not yet voted to appoint her.

The nonprofit Center for Justice, which advocates for open government in the Spokane region, is reviewing records — including that email from Richardson — to determine if Millwood violated the state's open meetings law, says Executive Director Rick Eichstaedt.

"If a decision regarding an appointment of a replacement city council member has to be made in an open public meeting, and an email says you're going to be appointed at this meeting, it does seem as though a decision has been made," Eichstaedt says.

More emails show City Attorney Brian Werst recommending that the council be "careful about appearances" regarding the acquisition of property of which Smith was the real estate agent. The property is two half-acre lots on E. South Riverway that border the Spokane River, and the city intends to use the land to build a park. For that reason, Werst says, the council did not vote to appoint her until Nov. 8. She was sworn in on Nov. 29. Yet by November, only the Spokane County Board of Commissioners, not the city, had the authority to appoint Smith.

"In all candor and hindsight, I should have advised the city to petition the Board of County Commissioners," Werst says.

During the Nov. 8 meeting, the city also authorized Mayor Freeman to purchase the Riverway property. Werst maintains that Smith did not communicate with the city council about the real estate acquisition in the months leading up to the purchase.

That line between council business and the land acquisition, though, seems to have been thin. In a Sept. 2 email from Richardson, the city clerk, to Mayor Freeman and City Attorney Werst, Richardson said he had an appointment with Smith for a walk-through on the property for sale "after she meets with the mayor at 10:00 to talk about the council."

'NEW TO POLITICS'

Harrington, the Millwood resident and attorney who opposes the land acquisition that is near his house, requested that the Washington Attorney General's Office look into the purchase. In a letter dated Jan. 5, 2017, the AG office denied the request, pending further information.

But the AG office did not look into the timing of Smith's appointment; that it occurred after the cutoff date. Harrington then wrote a letter to Millwood City Council, dated Feb. 13 — the day before Smith resigned — asking that Smith be removed from the council because it had no authority to appoint or vote her in.

Mayor Freeman did not respond to Inlander requests for comment.

Smith tells the Inlander that she had no idea she was appointed past the 90-day deadline. She says she had been harassed by a small group of people who opposed the city's acquisition of the land she facilitated the sale of.

"I'm so new to politics, I thought, 'I'm going to join the council. I love my city,'" she says. "Now it's completely backfired." ♦

wilsonc@inlander.com

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