Reardon, Sax trade barbs on ‘smoking bat’ e-mail

The latest dust-up in the blame game over the controversial Little League ball fields near Snohomish centers on an e-mail sent last year by a county councilman’s former legislative aide.

The e-mail surfaced as county officials searched for an answer to why Little League supporters thought they had the county’s OK to build ball fields on farmland near the Pilchuck River east of town.

Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon calls the e-mail “the smoking bat.”

Councilman Jeff Sax sees it differently.

“I call it interest in a constituent’s issue,” Sax said.

While Reardon, a Democrat, and Sax, a Republican, both want to see the state ban lifted that prohibits ball fields on agriculture land, their views on the e-mail’s importance don’t fit hand-in-glove.

Reardon said the e-mail helped him get a grip on the possible origin of the Little League ball field dilemma.

“It allowed me to track down where the problem may have begun and make the necessary corrections,” he said.

The e-mail, which the executive’s office distributed to reporters, was sent on Oct. 2 by former Sax aide Susan Banel to John Roney, at the time a special projects coordinator in the planning department, and other county employees.

In it, Banel told Roney that a Little League supporter had called her the day before and said a code enforcement officer had put a red tag on their ball field project as they were preparing to put grass seed down for the fields. The Little League representative said the group had hoped the rules that prevented ball fields would have been changed by then, so the project could go forward.

In the e-mail, Banel asked Roney for help: “Do what you can to get that red tag off so they can finish their planting, and let us talk about getting that ordinance in place asap.”

Banel left that aide post at the end of February. Efforts to reach her for comment were unsuccessful.

In public comments made earlier about the e-mail, Reardon made it sound like the message was more strongly worded. At a Rotary gathering in Marysville two weeks ago, Reardon highlighted the e-mail when addressing the ball fields controversy.

“We found the smoking bat,” Reardon said then, adding that it took a three-year audit of e-mails to uncover it. “We found e-mails from a councilman to a planning and development services employee, saying … take the red tag off the property and do it now.”

Reardon said he never cited Sax’s name in connection with the e-mail.

And it’s true that it was Sax’s aide, and not the councilman, who sent it.

More importantly, Sax said that council member’s aides don’t have the authority to tell county employees what to do.

Aides routinely take calls from residents who want problems with the county solved, and aides then talk with other county employees to get issues resolved.

Sax said the notion that aides could order around county employees was “absurd.”

“Aaron is taking this memo and turning it into a political issue,” Sax said. “It’s immature and overtly political.”

Larry Stickney, the legislative aide for County Councilman John Koster, was also named in Banel’s e-mail. He bristled at any insinuation that aides try to pull strings in the planning department.

“We don’t decree anything to them,” Stickney said, labeling the e-mail hubbub a “scurrilous attack.”

Stickney said people expect their councilman to work on the problems they call about.

“That’s what I do all day,” he said, turning to his computer screen to show more than 180 names in tiny type, each representing an open case he’s working on.

If the Banel e-mail was meant to have an immediate impact on the North Snohomish Little League’s ballpark project, it’s not clear that it did.

County files on the two ball field cases show that the code enforcement officer continued to work on the complaints after Banel’s e-mail was sent.

The code compliance officer noted a conversation the following week with an official from the North Snohomish Little League, and the officer told him the stop work order had not been lifted.

According to the code enforcement officer’s activity log, she stopped pressing the stop work order after Ed Hardesty, then code-compliance supervisor, told her to stop pursuing it because it was a “low priority.”

Reardon stressed he wasn’t casting blame by talking about the e-mail.

“We’re not pointing fingers,” he said. “That would be highly unproductive.

“We’ve inherited several unfortunate situations, from ball fields to budgets. To defend or attack would simply not help us solve the problem,” Reardon said.

Sax said he’s continuing to work on the issue as well. He will host a Little League summit that will be devoted to the problems of building sports fields on farmland on Aug. 5.

Reporter Brian Kelly: 425-339-3422 or kelly@heraldnet.com.

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