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Ellensburg Daily Record: "Teanaway sub-area plans on hold"

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November 5, 2009 -- An Ellensburg Police Department investigation into the disappearance of public documents has prompted the Kittitas County Board of Commissioners to temporarily suspend the Teanaway sub-area planning process.

By Mary Swift, staff writer

ELLENSBURG — An Ellensburg Police Department investigation into the disappearance of public documents has prompted the Kittitas County Board of Commissioners to temporarily suspend the Teanaway sub-area planning process.

The commissioners — Alan Crankovich, Mark McClain and Paul Jewell — announced the suspension of the sub-area planning process Tuesday.

“The commissioners are just interested in maintaining an open, transparent process and that’s why we suspended it,” said Jewell, who has attended all of the sub-area planning process meetings. “The county is very much interested in maintaining the transparency and integrity of the process, and we want to make sure it’s not undermined. We need time to figure out what’s going on here and to determine if and when we can move forward.”

The sub-area planning process effort has drawn strong criticism from some who say the largest land owner in the affected area, American Forest Land Co. (AFLC), wants to change its forest land designation to allow for eventual development. Last week, AFLC’s Wayne Schwandt unveiled its plans for what he termed a “self-contained community” on part of its land. But critics like Catherine Clerf fear the company’s ultimate goal is large-scale development of its 46,000-acre holdings in the proposed Teanaway sub-area, most of which are designated commercial forest land of long term significance.

Clerf maintains that John Rudey, the head of the company that bought the timberland in 1999, never intended to operate it as commercial forest land. Instead, she asserts, Rudey early on began trying to change the land use designation. Initial efforts went nowhere. In the spring of 2007, AFLC filed an administrative segregation request with the county’s Community Development Services (CDS) Department, submitting three, three-ring binders. An administrative segregation plan isn’t subject to public review, and decisions regarding the plan are handled by an administrator.

Darryl Piercy, then director of CDS, was handling the plan but did not act on it. Clerf says it was Piercy who showed her and three other members of a Land Use Advisory Committee what was in the binders. She maintains the content outlined a plan for thousands of homes on AFLC land.

For Clerf, the revelation amounted to a smoking gun, evidence that instead of owning forest land the company sought massive development in the Upper County.

The company eventually withdrew its application.

And that might have been that if AFLC hadn’t asked the county to do sub-area planning in the Teanaway. The company agreed to pay for the process. The county contracted with Gorden-Derr, a land use planning consulting firm, to oversee the process aimed at developing a long-term land use plan for the area.

Meetings began in August.

Clerf, meanwhile, discovered that two of three binders AFLC had submitted to the county planning department in 2007 were missing. Last week, convinced that the company is trying to hide its true long-range goal for the area, she made reference to the missing folders during a sub-area planning meeting at the Swauk-Teanaway Grange. The event drew both local property owners, conservationists and some county representatives, including Jewell and Kirk Holmes, interim director of CDS.

The next day, Clerf filed a theft report with the Ellensburg Police Department.

The three county commissioners — Jewell, Mark McClain and Alan Crankovich as well as Holmes — all say they knew nothing about the missing documents until last week.

According to the police report, Holmes and his staff told the investigating officer that two of the files had turned up missing sometime between late March and July 11, 2009. Holmes, who became interim CDS director in January 2009, told police that once a plan has been submitted it becomes public record and can’t be returned.

Despite that, the police report, prepared by Officer Josh Ingraham, says that there was a letter attached to the one file remaining in CDS possession. Dated March 20, 2009, it was from Jeff Jones, AFLC’s representative, asking that the files that had been submitted be returned to the company. Holmes told police that the permit center stamps any letters received at the time it receives them. However, Jones’ letter had not been stamped.

Holmes, told police that Piercy, who was terminated by the county in October 2008 for matters unrelated to AFLC, had handled the AFLC account until his dismissal. After that, responsibility for the files passed to Scott Turnbull, a land use planner, Holmes said. On March 31, Turnbull was among employees laid off by the department.

Police say that Turnbull, who is now employed by AFLC, was contacted at his home. He initially told investigators the last time he’d seen the binders was a week before he was laid off. But under further questioning, the report said, “Turnbull eventually admitted he gave the binders to Jeff Jones. Turnbull advised (that) Jones probably had the binders at his office. I contacted Jones who advised he had the binders.”

As it turns out, Jones had sent the binders to Patrick Ryan, a lawyer for AFLC. Ryan agreed to return the binders to Ellensburg Police.

The police report says that Jones said he “asked Turnbull if it was OK to take the folders back, and Turnbull said it was not a problem.”

Jones told police he did not know the files were considered public property. He also denied that there had ever been any kind of agreement between Turnbull and AFLC that Turnbull would be hired by AFLC in return for the binders. A call from the Daily Record to  Turnbull’s home Wednesday was not returned.

The police report says that in a recorded statement Turnbull said he never considered that giving records back to customers might be an issue and had done it on several other occasions. He told the officers that when Jones requested the return of the records he consolidated plans which were still being worked on into one folder and returned the rest of the information to Jones.

On Wednesday, Ellensburg Police Chief Dale Miller stood in his office looking at a large map of the Upper County, the same map that had so concerned Clerf when she first saw it.

Numerous areas of land were marked off in blocks, then sliced up into smaller strips. A white binder with Jeff Jones’ March 20 letter attached to it sat at one side. Three black binders were stacked a short distance away.

The white binder, the first of the three binders submitted by AFLC to CDS, appears to contain consolidated information, Miller said. The black binders ostensibly contain copies of the information contained in the binders returned to Jones. The problem, Miller said, is that there’s no way of knowing whether the black binders contain all of the information originally submitted to CDS by AFLC.

Further complicating the investigation, Miller said, is that whatever computer folder CDS may have had on AFLC’s administrative segregation plan has disappeared from the system. Holmes said the county’s IT staff is working to try to recover whatever files existed.

Even though they’ve now been recovered — at least in part, Miller said the disappearance of the records is being taken seriously by law enforcement.

“Potentially, this could be a Class C felony,” he said. “These are public records. At this point, we’re still investigating.”

He said once the investigation is completed the case will be referred to the Kittitas County Prosecutor’s Office. Prosecutor Greg Zempel could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Former Kittitas County commissioner David Bowen, now a PSE employee, officially takes a job as president of AFLC on Monday.

“My only real comment is that AFLC is working and cooperating fully with the investigation and supports the county in their efforts to maintain an open process in sub-area planning,” he said Wednesday night.

Commissioners said the county was clearly the victim in what had happened.

But Karl Forsgaard, a staff attorney for the Washington Forest Law Center who represents a coalition of conservation groups and other organizations that oppose any change in the land designation of AFLC’s commercial forest land, says public trust is the issue.

“We support the effort to find out why these public records went missing and to ensure it doesn’t happen again,” he said Wednesday. “The public needs to know what happened to the files and that none are missing or altered.”