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Two Monte council members push for investigation into waterfront land sale

First-term Montesano City Council members Tyler Trimble and Marisa Salzer are calling for an independent investigation into how the city was able to sell a large chunk of its waterfront two years ago without widely marketing the land first — and how the sale documents were signed without any of the conditions the council thought would be in the sale.

The council members say that The Vidette has exposed a glaring hole in the process the city has used to sell its city land. The city relied on a 2005 resolution that only requires the city to post a “for sale by owner” sign on city property without requiring any other kind of advertisement.

In 2012, the city sold 47 acres of property along the Chehalis River to developer Paul Willis for a proposed RV park for $23,000. Neither were on the council at the time. Willis owned the land around the city property. There was only one other “bidder” for the property, the husband to a city employee.

The city had thought it was selling the land with conditions that public access be maintained, a walkway be developed, erosion control methods be put in place and a six-month timetable that could allow the city to take the land back. But none of those conditions were in the sale agreement — or even in the city minutes, for that matter.

Montesano Mayor Ken Estes says it was an honest mistake made just months after he took office. Estes says he would like to revisit the 2005 resolution to ensure that proper advertising is given for land sales.

Salzer notes that as a former reporter working for The Vidette, she started researching the issue. And she became more concerned as part of her duties as The Vidette’s legal clerk when the city had made claims the land was advertised in the newspaper’s legals, and it never was.

“The waterfront issue has so many issues behind it that it is impossible to look at it as a whole and say it was a simple mistake,” Salzer said. “If we as the representatives of the city of Montesano expect citizens, employees and user groups to follow the rules, then why aren’t we doing that ourselves? … Why were the requests of the city council ignored? There are no written clause for public access and no legal was ever published. … If an outside investigation is looked at this issue, how much will that cost? I want to start hearing some answers and have at least one person take some responsibility.”

Trimble notes that the city administration put great scrutiny on former public works supervisor Russ Burke when he bought a paint sprayer through the city’s bidding process, by using a friend to buy it. However, the paint sprayer was at least advertised for the general public to know it was for sale. The waterfront wasn’t. “The same microscope that was placed on employees in the past two-and-a-half years needs to be placed on the mayor and city administrator,” Trimble said. “The comment ‘we are just following up on complaints,’ is very true tonight. I am just following up and would request an outside independent investigation into the handling of this property sale.”

“You intentionally placed our employees in the spotlight and investigated them on allegations, which you claimed to be serious,” Trimble added. “Those allegations are steps below the allegations against this administration. This administration should place themselves under the same scrutiny you have placed on others and you should be held to higher standards and the accountability far greater. … Tonight, I vow to the citizens of Montesano, I will not give up, This administration will be held accountable for their actions, that this great town with its great employees and great citizens, the ones who care about each other and will fight like Bulldogs fight, will be back in good hands shortly. In a recent commencement speech a commander in the Navy SEALS told graduates if they wanted to change the world, don’t back down from the sharks. I’m not backing down.”

Councilman Chris Hutchings said the land sale was the best deal at the time. He noted after the meeting, however, that he was “frustrated” to learn that public access to the waterfront was not enshrined as part of the conditions of the sale. “I think our city attorney owes us answers,” Hutchings said. “We should have guaranteed public access as a condition of the sale. It wasn’t. I would never have voted for this if it wasn’t a condition of the sale.”

Council members Ken Walkington and Pam McElliott made no comment about the issue during the council comment portion Tuesday night. Councilman Pat Herrington reminded the audience he was the only one to vote against it. Herrington declined further comment.