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

FILE - A sign hangs at a Taco Bell on May 23, 2014, in Mount Lebanon, Pa. Declaring a mission to liberate "Taco Tuesday" for all, Taco Bell asked U.S. regulators Tuesday, May 16, 2023, to force Wyoming-based Taco John's to abandon its longstanding claim to the trademark. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)
Hepatitis A confirmed in Taco Bell worker in Everett, Lake Stevens

The health department sent out a public alert for diners at two Taco Bells on May 22 or 23.

VOLLI’s Director of Food & Beverage Kevin Aiello outside of the business on Friday, May 19, 2023 in Marysville, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Coming soon to Marysville: indoor pickleball, games, drinks

“We’re very confident this will be not just a hit, but a smash hit,” says co-owner Allan Jones, who is in the fun industry.

Detectives: Unresponsive baby was exposed to fentanyl at Everett hotel

An 11-month-old boy lost consciousness Tuesday afternoon. Later, the infant and a twin sibling both tested positive for fentanyl.

Cassie Franklin (left) and Nick Harper (right)
Report: No wrongdoing in Everett mayor’s romance with deputy mayor

An attorney hired by the city found no misuse of public funds. Texts between the two last year, however, were not saved on their personal phones.

Firearm discovered by TSA officers at Paine Field Thursday morning, May 11, 2023, during routine X-ray screening at the security checkpoint. (Transportation Security Administration)
3 guns caught by TSA at Paine Field this month — all loaded

Simple travel advice: Unpack before you pack to make sure there’s not a gun in your carry-on.

Heavy traffic northbound on 1-5 in Everett, Washington on August 31, 2022.  (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
To beat the rush this Memorial Day weekend, go early or late

AAA projects busy airports, ferries and roads over the holiday weekend this year, though still below pre-pandemic counts.

Logo for news use featuring the municipality of Snohomish in Snohomish County, Washington. 220118
Troopers: DUI crash leaves 1 in critical condition in Maltby

A drunken driver, 34, was arrested after her pickup rear-ended another truck late Tuesday, injuring a Snohomish man, 28.

Housing Hope CEO Donna Moulton raises her hand in celebration of the groundbreaking of the Housing Hope Madrona Highlands on Tuesday, May 23, 2023 in Edmonds, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
$30M affordable housing project to start construction soon in Edmonds

Once built, dozens of families who are either homeless or in poverty will move in and receive social and work services.

Gary Fontes uprights a tree that fell over in front of The Fontes Manor — a miniature handmade bed and breakfast — on Friday, May 12, 2023, at his home near Silver Lake in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Everett’s mini-Frank Lloyd Wright builds neighborhood of extra tiny homes

A tiny lighthouse, a spooky mansion and more: Gary Fontes’ miniature world of architectural wonders is one-twelfth the size of real life.

Most Read