Kennewick council debates changes on hearings processes

A professional hearings examiner might be more efficient, but Kennewick city Councilman John Hubbard believes having a citizen-based board of adjustment is better.

Hubbard stood apart from others on the council at Tuesday's workshop to discuss using a hearings examiner in place of the city's board of adjustment and possibly in lieu of the appeals commission.

Hubbard held that public involvement in the process should be retained instead of hiring professional services.

Lisa Beaton, city attorney, has urged the council to consider hiring a professional hearings examiner because it would be more efficient, reduce the number of hearings and bring a level of professionalism that can't be achieved with citizen appointees who are lay people on complicated issues involving law and municipal codes.

"This looks like the city of Kennewick is taking one more step toward the bureaucratic mode. It is one more step away from the public being involved in a public process," Hubbard said after several council members voiced support for the proposal.

Councilman Don Britain said he'd go along with the idea even though he has concerns about putting that much power in one person's hands.

But Councilman Paul Parish said a hearing examiner system for handling appeals could save the city a lot of money. "If it'll save us from lawsuits, it is money well spent," he said.

Beaton noted that two of the past four appeals brought to the city's five-member board of adjustment have ended up in court.

"This (using a professional land use attorney as a hired hearings examiner) is meant for risk management when you've got a complicated case," Beaton said.

If the idea is so good, why not use a professional to conduct public hearings held before the city planning commission, Councilman Bob Parks suggested.

Beaton noted in her report to the council that a representative for the state Department of Commerce attended a recent state planners' association conference in Kennewick, discussing the benefits of using a hearing examiner.

"(He) highly recommended cities consider adopting this process as a risk management tool," she said.

Beaton said she plans to bring the proposal to the council at its first meeting in November. If the council agrees, the change to a hearings examiner system could take effect Jan. 1.

w John Trumbo: 582-1529; jtrumbo@tricityherald.com