Accountability comes first

Accountability is a virtue. For public entities, it’s a mandate.

As The Herald’s Noah Haglund and Diana Hefley reported Dec. 5, the city of Snohomish is accepting liability for unpaid-homeowner fees totaling $112,239. It’s a righted wrong, and a case study on the perils of wish-it-away-ness.

“The action that the city has now taken, it has consequences for the city, but I’d rather fight this on the side of the citizens and property owners than to be against them,” Councilwoman Lynn Schilaty told The Herald. “It has to be resolved one way or another. I’d rather work with them to resolve this than against them.”

In 2008, City Administrator Larry Bauman and other managers were aware of unpaid fees in the Denny and Kendall development before many of the affected homes were even sold, Haglund and Hefley write. The city erred by not requiring the now-kaput developer, Dynasty Homes, to pony up for school impact and sewer-connection fees prior to issuing building permits. (And it was not an immodest sum at close to $500,000.)

Fast-forward four years on the wish-it-away timeline, when city attorney Thom Graafstra notified stunned homeowners that they had two weeks to arrange payments.

The city violated its own code by not collecting the fees in advance, The Herald reports, and the city’s former permit coordinator was sacked in 2008.

Here the narrative becomes Byzantine. That former permit coordinator later received a $20,000 labor-grievance settlement from the city along with a letter of recommendation.

There also is a question of a possibly forged city-inspection statement. A sheriff’s detective, who concluded that the document was likely forged for a home that did not have an outstanding fee, also noted that title companies were never notified of any liability.

Why so much horsepower on a permitting-fee goof that should have been settled five years ago? The city, for obvious reasons, could be on the hook.

Hefley and Haglund asked the city administrator if the city could have resolved the issue much earlier.

“I suppose so,” Bauman said. “The problem is to consider the different kinds of risk in the options that we have.”

Indeed, the city could receive a negative finding in a future state audit. But Civics 101, implicit in the city code, is to do the right thing. There shouldn’t debate.

The fee imbroglio begs the question of whether it was an aberration or emblematic of a culture. Denny and Kendall homeowners banded together and benefitted from outstanding investigative reporting. But what about the single homeowner or senior citizen tilting at city hall?

Accountability first. Then Snohomish needs to implement safeguards to ensure it never happens again.

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