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Investigation winds down

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Flathead County Planning and Zoning officials hope a flap over planning practices will wind to a close in the coming weeks, as a private detective agency finishes a third-party investigation into a series of allegations.

Planning Director Jeff Harris says the Flathead County Board of Commissioners hired Moonlighting Detective Agency of Kalispell in mid-July to probe seven complaints from local residents concerning alleged illegal planning practices and disregard for open meeting laws. The investigation was originally scheduled to end in late September, but investigator William Eisentraut requested a two-month extension when the list of complaints grew to 20.

"We think they're getting close," the planning director says, adding that his staff will meet with Eisentraut for the first time sometime this week.

The investigation cost Flathead County $5,000 between July and September. Eisentraut asked for an additional $5,000 in a Sept. 28 letter to county commissioners, stating that more than a dozen more allegations surfaced during his initial review. Commissioner Jim Dupont says the county expects the final report by the second week of December.

For Harris, the issue can't come to a close soon enough. He says the complaints first arose this summer over the controversial Eagle's Crest Subdivision in Lakeside, when landowners claimed his office secretly circulated drafts of the development plan online. The Independent reported on July 9 that a group of residents had subsequently begun petitioning for Harris' resignation.

Harris responded to each complaint individually before Eisentraut started his investigation.

"This thing has been hanging over our heads since July," Harris says. "It's affected the office morale, it can't help but affect staff. So the sooner we put this to bed, the better."

Harris, who has served as planning director for more than four years, says he's unaware of any precedent for such an investigation. It's not a matter of the number of individuals complaining, he says, rather the volume of a relative few.

"I have 30 years of experience in public planning, and I've never been involved in anything like this," Harris says. "From my experience, it's totally abnormal, without question."

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