Kittitas County commissioners who signed a letter of support for a commercial compost project last year say they are legally clear of conflict of interest and appearance of fairness concerns.

To be safe, commissioners on Monday revoked the May 24, 2012, letter of support.

Spokane-based PacifiClean has proposed building a commercial compost facility on 120 acres of county land in the Ryegrass area off Vantage Highway. The facility would process yard and food waste from the Seattle area, and possibly municipal biosolids. The company is pursuing a lease for the county property, with a hearing planned July 9.

Commissioners Obie O’Brien and Paul Jewell, before Monday’s action, acknowledged there have been questions raised about the May 24, 2012, meeting with a representative of PacifiClean Environmental LLC and a subsequent letter with the same date indicating commissioners’ support for a project in the county.

Jewell said he met informally June 4 after a public meeting with representatives of the County Residents Against PacifiClean group.

He said the residents, in some of their questions and comments, expressed concern about the 2012 letter and felt it raised conflict of interest/appearance of fairness issues.

Changes in county review

Jewell said at the time of last year’s meeting and letter, commissioners were acting with the knowledge they were not involved in making decisions on a conditional-use permit that would likely be sought by PacifiClean.

Jewell said the county’s five-member Board of Adjustment was responsible at that time to review applications and public comments on the compost project, and would have made the final permitting decision.

Things have changed since then. The county disbanded the Board of Adjustment in December 2012, turning final decision-making authority over to the three county commissioners. 

A county land-use hearings examiner conducts reviews and hearings on conditional-use permits and makes recommendations to the county commissioners.

Jewell said the May 2012 meeting and support letter occurred under different county land-use rules, and at that time the meeting and letter posed no conflict of interest or appearance of fairness issues.

Over two years, county planning staff and commissioners discussed the need to streamline the review process and replace the Adjustment Board, Jewell said.

New letter

In the action Monday, commissioners issued a letter to PacifiClean officials saying they were revoking the May 2012 letter. The letter, signed by O’Brien, Jewell and Gary Berndt, indicated commissioners  now make the final decision. 

“As such we must remain neutral as all applications follow a prescribed process according to county codes which includes public input and review,” the letter said.

The letter said the commissioners in May 2012 never intended to provide an outright endorsement for a specific project.

“Likewise, our revocation of the letter of support should not be considered a statement of opposition to any future application,” the letter read. “The county will process and review any compost proposal according to county code in a neutral and unbiased manner.”

During the Monday meeting, Jewell said the commissioners in no way are gaining anything personally from the PacifiClean proposal and an allegation of conflict of interest can’t be made in this issue. 

“It’s the right message to send to the applicant as well as the public,” Jewell said about the letter.

Support letters

Before the Monday meeting, Jewell said commissioners are concerned about the perception of the support letter.

“We take very seriously maintaining appearance of fairness and keeping clear of any conflict of interest in any proposal coming to the county that we must decide on,” said Jewell, adding he explained this to the anti-composting advocacy group on June 4.

None of the commissioners in May 2012, O’Brien, Jewell and Alan Crankovich, had anything to gain from the project, Jewell said, adding the support letter only endorsed a concept about a possible facility. It did not endorse approval of a specific, project permit application that had been submitted to the county, he said, noting that no application had been submitted by May 2012.

Jewell said the support letter “in no way indicated something like you bring us an application and we’ll approve it.” He said commissioners made it clear in May 2012 that PacifiClean had to go through a rigorous public review process involving the Adjustment Board.

He added the support letter was to be used by PacifiClean in its effort to gain funding for the project and to gain contracts to receive waste material.

Jewell said commissioners periodically are asked for letters of support from a variety of profit-based and nonprofit entities seeking funding not related to county government.

O’Brien said the support letter last year also reflected commissioners’ commitment to the county’s public review process, and to offer all land-use proposals, including those that can create jobs, a fair, thorough and timely government review based on rules and public input.

Commissioner Gary Berndt, who took office Jan. 1, 2013, and was not part of issuing the support letter, said the question of the impact of the May 2012 letter may, ultimately, require research by county legal counsel to affirm the board’s standing in the matter.

State code

Chief Civil Deputy Prosecutor Neil Caulkins, when asked by the Daily Record about the citizen group’s concerns, replied by email with a citation from state law: “Participation by a member of a decision-making body in earlier proceedings that result in an advisory recommendation to a decision-making body shall not disqualify that person from participating in any subsequent quasi-judicial proceeding.”

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