Jeff Harris, director of the Flathead County Planning & Zoning office, finds himself under siege by a small but vocal group of property rights advocates who last week submitted a petition to the county commission to have him ousted. Their claim: Harris' office violated laws in the drafting of neighborhood plans in Lakeside and Somers.
"Whatever they can do to disrupt those processes they're trying to do, including making allegations and accusations at the planning office and myself," Harris says.
The group, American Dream Montana, staunchly opposes "smart growth," which its website describes as a "destructive social (or socialist) experiment." At a June 29 meeting, the group gathered more than 100 signatures on a petition calling for Harris to be suspended without pay until an independent investigation can determine whether the planning office acted outside of local and state laws.
"The county and the county attorney's office has condoned secret meetings, secret websites, in which a lot of decisions were being made in regards to peoples' private property and how it could or could not be used," claims Russ Crowder, head of American Dream Montana and a Marion resident. "I think that's probably the most egregious [example]."
Crowder adds that he's circulating the petition to "get the county to get back to the rule of law when it comes to land-use matters."
The effort comes after a June 15 planning meeting in Somers that turned contentious. Sheriff's deputies were called in after planning opponents become rowdy, interrupting Harris's presentation by shouting profanities.
According to Harris, the vocal opponents' understanding of property rights "is something to the effect that everybody should be able to do whatever they want on their property without regard to neighbors or anything else. We don't take that view. We take a more balanced property rights view."
Next week, Harris expects to submit to Flathead County Commissioners a written response to the accusations.
"If there are legitimate issues raised, we'll address those and we'll adjust," Harris says. "If the accusation is a half-truth, if it's misleading entirely, I'm obligated to point those things out. There was a whole lot of stuff thrown on the wall, and they're hoping something will stick."
The commissioners will decide what sticks—if anything—in the coming weeks. Chairman Dale Lauman, for one, thinks an independent investigation seems appropriate. But he says he and the other commissioners haven't discussed suspending Harris.