Chairman admits trying to force out vocal planning commissioner
Roughly a month after the November election, a planning commissioner who had expressed her political positions in The Record-Courier was asked to resign.
County Commission Chairman Mike Olson confirmed Wednesday that he had asked Margaret Pross to resign in early December.
“There were rumblings at the time that there had been a loss of confidence in Margaret on the board,” Olson said.
Olson said on two separate occasions, two separate commissioners, whom he refused to name, approached him about removing Pross from the advisory board that oversees land use and development issues. He said he asked her to resign to avoid the “painful” process of a public hearing. However, he said he assumed planning commissioners served at the pleasure of the board and “could be unappointed.”
“I really didn’t want to drag the community through a hearing and big scene,” Olson said. “At the time, I didn’t – and it was stupid of me – check fully with the DA.”
On Wednesday, District Attorney Mark Jackson said he could not disclose any details of the matter due to attorney-client privilege. He did specify, per county code, the three offenses for which a planning commissioner can be removed: Inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance of office.
“It’s my fault for not researching the statutes,” Olson said. “Honest-to-goodness, I’m a people person just trying to make things work.”
Olson said the commissioners who had approached him cited concerns over Pross’ outspokenness during the election.
“One said they were really not happy with Margaret Pross and that she didn’t represent us,” he said. “On another occasion, real similar, they said they didn’t know how we could have Margaret Pross continue serving on the board when she serves us. I think that had something to do with it: If she’s in the paper attacking people, and they’re the ones she’s advising.”
First appointed to the planning commission in 2006 and re-appointed in 2010, Pross wrote two letters to the editor of The Record-Courier during the election. The first letter, published Oct. 13, supported Lawrence Howell, who narrowly lost to incumbent commissioner Nancy McDermid. The second letter, published Oct. 27, criticized new candidate Lee Bonner and cast support for incumbent Dave Brady. Bonner won the seat, also by a narrow margin.
Olson said some commissioners had asked that Pross’ removal be agendized and brought through the public process. He said he himself would not have voted to remove her.
“I apologized,” he said. “The goal was to keep the county out of a messy situation.”
On Wednesday, Pross confirmed that Olson had asked her to resign in December because of her letters to the editor. She also said Olson had told her commissioners would vote on her removal in January if she did not resign. She declined to comment further.
Brady, who was vice chairman at the time, said he was concerned about a potential Open Meeting Law violation when Olson informed him about the situation.
“Mike Olson asked to talk with me and share with me, what I believed to be as a courtesy, that he was going to be asking one of my supporters to resign from the planning commission. I took that to mean Margaret Pross,” Brady said. “And I mentioned to him that I felt that he was not on solid ground and that he would be best served by talking to the district attorney’s office first. His response to me was essentially, ‘We appointed her, and we can unappoint her.’
“He (Olson) did not say specifically say, ‘I have three votes,’ but again he made inference that there were commissioners that wanted to replace Margaret on the planning commission, and, as a courtesy to me, was he sharing that information.
“My first reaction was it’s an Open Meeting Law violation if Michael says to Margaret there are three votes to remove you. How do you get that information? He had to have polled the board.”
Brady, however, believes Olson did not poll the board, but that commissioners pressured him.
“What I believe happened is he was told,” Brady said. “He did not go poll the board, but the reality is it would appear that he polled the board, could count to three, and took direction on that, and asked for her resignation. They had reached a decision, and I think they gave Mike Olson marching orders. ‘Go tell her she has to resign. You’re the chair.'”
Brady believes Olson was given direction from two sitting county commissioners and a commissioner-elect, none of whom he named on the record. He said they may have violated the Open Meeting Law in spirit, if not the letter of the law.
“Quite honestly at that point, I felt I’m going to step into the shadows and let this thing unfold,” Brady said.
He said he was hopeful the issue would be resolved by the district attorney’s office.
“We thought we had it resolved with the DA sitting down with Margaret and Mike McCormick and Cynthea Gregory,” Brady said. “I thought they had brought resolution to it. At that point, I said, ‘OK, we’re done here,’ but I think what transpired at the first meeting really resurrected so much of Margaret’s issue. That isn’t just a simple, ‘We want Margaret gone.’ They were trying to clean house.”
On Jan. 3, the new board of commissioners voted 4-1, with Doug Johnson opposing, to replace Howell, the planning chair, Rick Ross and Bob Conner with Don Miner, Jeremy Davidson and Frank Godecke.
Brady said removal of incumbent planning commissioners is only half the story.
“The other half of the story is getting the people in play that they did,” he said. “Because you want to move toward a super-majority when you have master plan amendments.
“It was three days into January that all of this unfolded and made for a much bigger picture. Once you connect the dots, you realize it’s not a simple innocent move to remove a single commissioner for payback. It’s a bigger picture to replace the entire planning commission over time.”
Olson disagreed. At the same time, he said he didn’t like that commissioners had to specifically name each incumbent they were replacing.
“It made it personal,” he said. “That didn’t make much sense to me.”
But he defended his choices and argued that new planning commissioners will provide a fresh perspective.
“I like Don Miner,” he said. “We’re going through the 15-year master plan update, and Don was one of the original authors of the master plan.”
Olson said Davidson brings the perspective of a young family man, and Godecke the perspective of agriculture.
“One thing I heard constantly when I was doing the master plan was that agriculture had no representation on the board,” he said.
Olson also denied accusations that the vote was decided before hand, in violation of state law.
“I think all of us are well-versed on the Open Meeting Law,” he said. “If there are three of us standing together, one of us better walk away. I talk to each of the commissioners about the issues, about the different things going on and what’s coming up, not on perspective or the best thing to do or what they’re going to do. Each of us holds our vote as being sacred. It’s not something, at least for myself, I will give up easily.”
Brady said some political opponents may accuse him of sour grapes for speaking out. But he said the importance of the issue surpasses any personal agenda.
“This is about understanding the dynamics that are taking place in this county,” he said, “the impact of special interest groups, and the impact on someone who has dedicated themselves to serving this community, namely Margaret Pross, and to be treated the way that she was as a result of her voicing her opinion in a free election.”