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Comments, conduct of Spokane Valley city councilman called into question

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(The Center Square) – The conduct and comments of new Councilman Al Merkel were called into question during a testy Spokane Valley City Council meeting Tuesday night.

In an opening statement, City Manager John Hohman said a neutral, third-party workplace investigator has been hired to look into complaints that Merkel, who took office in January, had engaged in offensive, hostile or unwelcome interactions with city hall employees.

Hohman did not name specific individuals or the investigator, but he insisted no determination had yet been made on the validity of the allegations against Merkel and that the investigation would be non-political and “fair, unbiased, and thorough ….”

Merkel was in attendance but did not comment on the statement. Hohman said he asked Merkel last week to voluntarily limit his presence at city hall to the weekly council meetings and only interact with Hohman or deputy city manager Erik Lamb while the inquiry was underway.

The Center Square reached out to Merkel for comment but did not receive a reply.

Those limitations are not disciplinary actions, said Hohman, but intended to protect “everyone involved,” including the city, its staff, and Merkel himself.

To avoid liability, said Hohman, employers have a legal obligation “to take reasonable steps” to protect workers from discrimination or a hostile work environment. Hohman did say that Spokane Valley’s 116 full time employees are “our greatest asset” and that they “perform incredible work … every day with a high level of commitment to the … community.”

Separately, a majority of council members on Tuesday approved a motion to reprimand Merkel for posting social media comments following an executive session during their Feb. 27 meeting. After privately discussing real estate matters – an allowable exemption to the state’s Open Public Meetings Act – the council returned to regular session and publicly voted to approve a $630,000 land purchase intended for future affordable housing.

Councilmember Jessica Yaeger, who brought the reprimand motion, said Merkel later posted on the NextDoor website that the council had privately voted on the land acquisition during the executive session, which would have been a violation of state law.

“Any assertion to the contrary is false,” said Yaeger.

In response, Merkel said he corrected his error after it was pointed out to him. When asked by Councilmember Laura Padden how long that took, Merkel replied, “about six hours.”

“A long time,” said Padden.

She and Yaeger, along with Councilmembers Rod Higgins and Tim Hattenburg faulted Merkel for breaching what Higgins called “the sanctity of the executive session.” The four, along with Mayor Pam Haley, voted in favor of the reprimand, which carries no formal punishment. Councilmember Ben Wick and Merkel dissented.

“I’m confused. I admitted, ‘This is not what happened,’” Merkel said at one point. He later questioned what provision of the council governance manual he had violated.

Yaeger responded, “Playing stupid does not get you out of this, Mr. Merkel.”

Merkel objected. So did several citizens during an ensuing public comment period who felt Yaeger’s comment was out of line and called for an apology.

One man said the council majority has “had it in for Mr. Merkel since the very beginning.” Several others also voiced their support for the councilman, saying Merkel has strived to bring transparency to local government and the council majority’s actions constituted “disenfranchisement of the voters.”

But other citizens expressed support for the council and city staff, who had seen little public controversy or in-fighting at meetings prior to Merkel taking office. One woman said the meetings were not an appropriate venue for “a one-person band, a Negative Nellie … with a Superman mentality.” Others called for improved civility, cooperation, and decorum.

During his two-month tenure on the council, Merkel has persistently questioned city staff on how much time they spend working on presentations and documents, such as grant applications, and whether there is a tangible benefit compared to labor costs and use of local dollars. Merkel said his queries are prompted by questions from citizens.

On Tuesday, Merkel said he did not intend to support a grant application until he understand how much time it took to prepare it. Hattenburg in turn said the council “should not be asking staff to punch a time clock” and added, “We’re very blessed to have the staff we have.”

In a subsequent presentation regarding funding of capital projects over the past 13 years, City Engineering Manager Adam Jackson noted Spokane Valley had a success rate of 45% in receiving 111 grant awards totaling $147.7 million out of 246 total applications. Those monies provided nearly 50% of total funding applied to dozens of public works projects, including major roadway/ transportation and water/sewer/stormwater improvements.

Padden said it was “obvious” that prior councils had made “the correct decision to pursue grants,” that staff had done “an excellent job” in acquiring them, and the city had “the right lobbyists” to work with state and congressional delegations.

She estimated that staff time in those processes equated to one half-time employee, with the city receiving a payoff of nearly $148 million. “That’s a whole lot of money,” said Padden, adding that local tax dollars are being returned to the city, which has benefitted from the infrastructure improvements, added jobs, and revenues.

She described the efforts as “spectacularly successful” while Wick said the city has “a remarkable program” in terms of financial return compared to time investment.

“No way I’m trying to cast [aspersions] on grant programs. I think they’re great,” Merkel later responded, reiterating that his questioning is prompted by “almost daily” inquiries from citizens.