Problems with county’s permitting process has long been troublesome for many

Ken Vance Editorial Clarkcountytoday.com

News of County Council’s attempts to address issue is welcomed

Several years ago when I was the editor of The Reflector Newspaper, a pastor of a church in north Clark County came into my office to share a story illustrating his frustrations with the permitting process in Clark County.

The pastor told me that his church wanted to expand on property it already owned. If I recall correctly, the plans were to construct a multi-purpose building to be used for meetings and other gatherings. They weren’t attempting to build a new church or sanctuary, just an auxiliary building on their own property.

It was a church with a small congregation and staff and the pastor was doing much of the legwork for the project himself, which meant that he personally was the point person interacting with county staff during the permitting process.

This pastor wasn’t vindictive or mean-spirited in any way. He wouldn’t even allow me to tell his specific story publicly out of fear of reprisals from county staff, who had grown increasingly difficult to work with. But, the pastor felt the public needed to know how difficult the process was, hoping that would help evoke change so others would not have to experience what he had.

What that pastor experienced was a virtual nightmare. The process went from weeks, to months, to years. That’s right. I don’t remember exactly how long the process eventually took, but my memory is that it lasted between two and three years. Add to that, the cost of the permitting and fees grew from hundreds into several thousands of dollars. All this to allow a modest church with a small congregation to build a meeting hall on property their already owned.

It’s that story, and many others that have been told to me over the years by exacerbated Clark County residents, that caused me to hope for better days when I learned of the recent examination of the permitting process taking place by the Clark County Council. If you haven’t already, please read ClarkCountyToday.com reporter Chris Brown’s story:

The county paid an outside consulting firm, Citygate Associates, $84,000 to examine the problems and come up with solutions. As a fiscal conservative, I’m never happy that the county has to spend money on an outstanding consulting firm, but addressing this issue is long overdue and, in my opinion, money well spent.

Bill Cook, with Citygate, interviewed 40 county employees and received responses from 70 others and reported that it was clear that a lot needs to be done to address the problems. Citygate’s conclusion, outlined in a 142-page report, was that lack of  training has led to a high turnover rate among county employees that work in the Permit Center. They recommended hiring someone specifically to assist in training new employees.

The most troubling aspect of the Citygate report was the impact that Clark County’s Home Rule Charter has had on this issue. Much of the blame in the report for a lack of trust and direction came back to the county’s ongoing transition to the charter and the long-running search for a permanent county manager. It’s been about 10 months since the councilors terminated Mark McCauley and a permanent replacement has not yet been found.

Now, as I pointed out, the problems with Clark County’s permitting process predates the Home Rule Charter. However, the changes implemented as a result of the charter have not helped the situation.

I opposed the Home Rule Charter in large part because it took authority away from elected councilors and gave it to the county manager. Specifically, it placed the county manager in charge of county staff, and created separation between the councilors and the staff.

Citygate’s report indicated a problem with frustrated developers side-stepping county staff by taking their complaints to councilors. Then, when councilors attempted to intervene, or at least solicit explanations for the cause of the problems, county staff members haven’t responded well, and they told Citygate it made them reluctant to make a decision during a permit process.

I have no problem with the county manager being the direct supervisor to county staff. However, I have always believed the elected councilors deserve to have some kind of a hammer over the staff, more than just having the ability to hire and fire the county manager. It is my opinion that if staff feel shielded from the councilors, they will feel insulated from true accountability for their performance. Many believe one of the reasons McCauley was terminated was that he was too soft on the staff he supervised.

This dynamic is part of a much larger issue with the structure of county government in our post-charter era. However, it was troubling, albeit not surprising, to see it rear its ugly head in the issues with the county’s permitting process.

Let’s hope the councilors, with the help of Citygate, find some meaningful solutions to the long-standing issues with permitting in the county. That will be a good start.

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About The Author

Ken Vance got his start in the newspaper industry in 1987 as a reporter at The Columbian Newspaper in Vancouver. Vance graduated from Stevenson High School in Stevenson, WA, and attended Clark College in Vancouver. He worked for The Columbian from 1987-2001. He was most recently a staff member of The Reflector Newspaper in Battle Ground, where he served as editor since 2010 and reporter since 2007. Vance’s work in the newspaper industry has won him multiple awards, including a first place award from the Society of Professional Journalists for in-depth reporting.

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