Planning commissioner vindicated following ethics complaint

Two critics said Merle Ash profited from his public role. A Snohomish County ethics commission disagreed.

EVERETT — A Snohomish County ethics board has rejected allegations that a longtime member of the planning commission used his position for personal gain.

The Ethics Commission concluded Merle Ash did not violate county rules when he supported removing a buffer zone requirement from development standards. Two opponents of the controversial Frognal Estates development proposal complained in August that Ash, a consultant for the project, supported the policy change years ago because it benefited the plan.

Ethics Commission Chairman Giuseppe Fina found “no evidence that Mr. Ash had any direct or indirect, personal, or financial interest” when Ash voted in favor of the change, which allowed developers to grade and clear up to property lines. Fina’s written decision, penned last fall, was provided to The Daily Herald in January by the county.

Ash, along with others in the development community who pushed for the 2019 county code revision, said before the amendment passed that the two-foot setback required along property boundaries often became a magnet for rodents, trash and squatters.

The planning commissioner called the allegations against him “deceptive.”

“It’s not true. I didn’t get a nickel out of it,” said Ash, who was first appointed to the planning commission in 2014.

Last fall, the Snohomish County Council reappointed him to another four-year term.

Bill Lider and Linda Gray submitted the ethics complaint in protest of the reappointment. They have for years voiced concerns about conflicts of interest in Ash’s involvement with Frognal Estates.

Along with other opponents of the project, Lider and Gray have argued that Frognal Estates would create landslide risks on steep and environmentally sensitive land south of Mukilteo, near Picnic Point Elementary School.

The plan, consisting of 112 homes on 22 acres, is now on hold because its developer is trying to work out kinks in the financing. The project’s backers filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last summer. Those proceedings are still unfolding, court records show.

Subdivision drawings — cited by Lider and Gray to support the allegations against Ash — contained errors, the planning commissioner has argued. Ash’s firm submitted the documents to county planners in spring 2018, showing no setbacks between Frognal Estates and neighboring property lines. But those setbacks were always part of the plan, according to Ash, and his firm later corrected the documents and re-submitted them.

So when Ash later voted in support of eliminating the setback requirements, he wasn’t doing so for the advantage of the project, he has said.

“Simply put, these allegations are nothing more than a bad faith and vindictive attempt at character assassination of a dedicated and respected public servant,” Ash’s attorney, Michael Zoretic, wrote in a 34-page response to the ethics commission.

The document was filed in late August, roughly a month after Lider and Gray submitted the formal complaint.

“Complainants – and Mr. Lider – in particular, have made a career out of challenging county development projects,” Zoretic wrote. “The current ‘ethics complaint’ against Mr. Ash takes this strategy of obstruction and interference to a new low – making willfully untruthful and deceptive misrepresentations about Mr. Ash’s conduct and character in a blatant attempt to falsely and maliciously injure his professional reputation and have him removed from the Planning Commission.”

Lider, an engineer who serves on the board for the Sno-King Watershed Council, maintains that developers only advocated for the elimination of the buffer zones because it would allow them to fit more homes in new subdivisions. He stands by his original complaint, he said, calling the ethics board’s ruling “unfortunate.”

Rachel Riley: 425-339-3465; Twitter: @rachel_m_riley.

Talk to us

More in Local News

Keith Wagoner
Senator becomes first GOP candidate for secretary of state

Sen. Keith Wagoner will challenge Democrat Steve Hobbs, who was appointed to the statewide post in November

Madison is one of three aging elementary schools that would be torn down and replaced if the Everett schools bond is passed next year. (Sue Misao / Herald file)
Everett school leaders have 2 big levies on February ballot

The district is asking voters to renew a levy for programs and operations, and to pass a $325 million capital and tech levy.

Reagan Dunn to take on U.S. Rep. Kim Schrier in 8th District

The Republican is challenging incumbent Democrat Kim Schrier in a district which could include a slice of Snohomish County.

Charges: Arlington-area shooting suspect had gun stash, bomb lab

A bomb squad spent two days detonating explosive material. Detectives also discovered an underground bunker full of guns.

A fatal crash prompted closure of West Mukilteo Boulevard between Forest Park and Dogwood Drive Friday afternoon. (Everett Police Department) 20211126
2 identified in deadly T-bone crash in Everett

Otila Retel Azanedo de Jones, 67, and William Jones, 85, died at the scene.

Two brother bear cubs, burned in a fire last summer, were recently reunited at PAWS in Lynnwood. (PAWS) 20211129
Bear cubs, burned in wildfires, reunited in viral video in Lynnwood

The brother cubs are being treated at PAWS Wildlife Center. They were injured in a wildfire near Lake Chelan.

A car breaks and waits for traffic to pass before turning onto 123rd Avenue on Monday, Nov. 22, 2021 in Lake Stevens, Wa. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Can roundabouts, lower speed limit make 84th Street NE safer?

Maybe, but transportation and disability advocates want design features to make crossing safe.

Everett officials have questions about a 125-room hotel shelter

City Council members say they weren’t aware of the county’s proposal until it made headlines.

A banner outside the door of Goodies in Mountlake Terrace says, “$795,000 Hit 5 ticket sold here.” (Andrea Brown / The Herald) 20211201
Who has the $795,000 Hit 5 ticket sold in Mountlake Terrace?

The winner has until Dec. 8 to claim the prize from a lottery ticket sold June 11 at Goodies Food.

Most Read