Hiring a temporary hearing examiner to handle the first appeals for the proposed medication-assisted treatment (MAT) facility never came to a vote before Sequim city councilors Monday, March 9.
Mayor William Armacost asked for a motion to hire Phil Olbrechts and Associates to hear three appeals of city staff’s decision to classify the project as an A-2 process where city staff review and approve the project. However, the room went quiet for about a minute until councilor Dennis Smith made a motion. The room went quiet again until Armacost said the motion failed due to not receiving a second.
Prior to the decision, or lack thereof, city manager Charlie Bush and city attorney Kristina Nelson-Gross said the city’s code requires them to hire a hearing examiner for this portion of the appeals process.
Deputy Mayor Ted Miller said he felt Olbrechts would be an excellent hearing examiner, but he questioned if they needed to have one.
“It doesn’t matter what we decide, because it’s going to get appealed to the superior court,” Miller said. “That way we can save a hearing examiner fee.”
Nelson-Gross said because residents are appealing the classification process (A-2), it falls under an appeal in the city’s code that requires a hearing examiner.
Earlier in the meeting, she said this is an area city staff look to clean up in the code, and that there are few instances where a decision would go to the council because of issues of fairness.
Councilor Troy Tenneson said he’s been upfront with his opposition to the proposed MAT clinic since last year and that he feels city staff have drifted to exclude city councilors from the decision-making process.
Nelson-Gross disagreed, saying the hearing examiner process isn’t about any specific councilor or their beliefs.
“It’s about the interactions with the public; everyone is tainted in that sense,” she said.
”Regardless if you oppose or support the clinic, it’s the number and the multitude of contacts and conversations that have swayed or created a bias one way or the other. It has nothing to do if you oppose it on a daily basis.”
She said the Appearance of Fairness Doctrine is “what tries to get council out of some of these decisions” and is “not something we are trying to do except to protect you and the city.”
“No one can say they are neutral because of what they’ve gone through the (last few months),” Nelson-Gross said.
“We’re not disparaging anyone’s beliefs. It is just the law. When the council sits in a judicial manner it is expected to act like a judge.”
Tenneson said after reviewing city code it wasn’t right to appoint a hearing examiner.
Earlier in the meeting he said he understood Bush’s effort to seek out a hearing examiner because of the appeals, but said he felt that if the classification process was overturned from an A-2 process to a C-2 process the decision regarding the clinic would fall to the city council.
“I anticipate the city council being the appeal authority for the MAT appeal,” he said.
Tenneson said with Bush and former city councilor Jennifer States stepping down and other vacancies to fill, “I think hiring a hearing examiner is a serious position and it would behoove us to wait.”
At the beginning of the presentation, Robert “Bob” Bilow, one of the appellants of the classification process, interjected, saying Bush cut through the process of appointing a hearing examiner and that the city manager simplified the criteria qualifications for the hearing examiner.
In his presentation, Bush told councilors they must consider if Olbrechts is qualified or not.
“There’s nothing that needs to be done until June,” Bilow said. “You’re getting railroaded on this.”
Bilow offered to research other cities and states practices because there’s “no necessity to get it done tonight.”
Bush said the process was delayed because he was out about seven weeks between Nov. 1-Feb. 1 dealing with a medical family emergency.
Nelson-Gross said city staff have looked at other request for proposals in other governments and “nothing we are proposal is unusual.”
She said they aren’t sure when the application will be approved or not but they must be ready 21 days afterward for the appeal process.
“Whenever that happens, we need to be ready to get those appeals ready and before a hearing examiner and have any meetings scheduled … we’re trying to be diligent with our time and council’s time,” she said.
“We are trying to work best through this,” she said.
Nelson-Gross said there are also some limitations to who will come to the peninsula as a hearing examiner, so they need enough time to reach out to people who may not be as inclined to travel if they have a low turnout for a request for proposal.
Toward the end of the discussion, Tenneson sought assistance from Bilow but city councilors remained quiet.
Pat Johnson, a Sequim lawyer, interjected saying, “My take is that city council hires a city attorney for a reason.”
“The city council should take city attorney’s opinion as to the law that applies and accept it because that’s her job,” she said.
“If they don’t and feel they need a second opinion, they should hire a lawyer to give them an unbiased opinion. You don’t hire someone from one side and ask him for a legal opinion. That makes absolutely no sense.”
Later, Tenneson said he trusts Nelson-Gross on many issues but with the MAT and Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, “I’m having reason to believe her assessment of the situation has been compromised.”
After the meeting, Bush said staff will discuss next steps on what to do with the process in the coming weeks and consult with the mayor and deputy mayor.
For more information about the City of Sequim, visit www.sequimwa.gov or call 360-683-4139.
Reach Matthew Nash at firstname.lastname@example.org.