Social Media Controversy Unseats DuPont, Wa., Planning Commissioner

Planning commissioner Beth Elliott was removed from her volunteer role for posting what Mayor Mike Courts feels was misleading information on Facebook.

by Candice Ruud, The News Tribune / October 6, 2017
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(TNS) -- When big changes come to a small city, sometimes emotions run high.

That appears to be the case in DuPont, where a planning commissioner’s decision to post information to a civic-oriented Facebook page about controversial proposed changes to the city’s land use-plan so incensed the mayor that he fired her.

Mayor Mike Courts said planning commissioner Beth Elliott overstepped her bounds and misled residents by posting a map showing potential zoning changes and adding labels that showed what types of uses might be considered in certain areas. Courts said her post to the local Facebook group “wrongfully and negatively interrupted and interfered” with city business.

Elliott said she was just trying to let people know about an important city issue and inform them about an upcoming public hearing. She’s challenged her removal from the volunteer board.

The pair looked to be working toward an amicable resolution late this week, but the dust-up points to how big changes can lead to discord, in both large cities along the Interstate 5 corridor and tight-knit towns like DuPont.

Big changes for DuPont’s Old Fort Lake

The underlying issue is whether and how the city should change the zoning of the Old Fort Lake area, which would potentially allow for the sale and development of 262 unused acres of land near the city center. The land stretches to Puget Sound and borders The Home Course golf course, Old Fort Lake, the city’s civic center, miles of walking trails and much undeveloped land.

DuPont, like many cities along the I-5 corridor, is changing and growing, too rapidly for some. Traffic getting out of DuPont’s neighborhoods and onto I-5 for the morning commute is grueling. A 1-million-square-foot Amazon fulfillment center — a huge warehouse — has frustrated residents who live across Center Drive and listen to tractor trailers barreling past day and night.

Right now, the Old Fort Lake area is zoned for business and technology and parts of it have sat vacant for decades. Much of it is owned by the California State Teachers’ Retirement System.

A developer has shown interest in buying the property and wants to build what it has tentatively called “The Park at DuPont.” The project is envisioned as a mix of residential development, office space, retail, restaurants, wineries, hotels, industry and manufacturing.

Warehouses are big business in Pierce County, including in DuPont, which is home to eight large warehouses or distribution centers (Amazon’s is the largest). Mayor Courts envisions the Park at DuPont, as described by developer Copper Leaf, as a potential boon for quality of life in the city: a live-work center where residents could commute five minutes to their job instead of slogging it out on I-5. It would also increase the tax base and allow the city to take advantage of a prime piece of real estate that’s long sat fallow, he said.

In order to build all those nice things, Courts told a crowd gathered at an informational meeting Tuesday night, the developer needs a way to make a profit. That’s where the warehouses come in.

The potential introduction of more warehouses, with more big rigs roaring through town, is a big part of what’s upset some DuPont residents. Those warehouses could be built on land that abuts school property and is directly across from the city’s rustic, manicured civic center and its beloved Sequalitchew Creek trailhead.

But Courts is encouraged by the proposal. Copper Leaf wants to work with the city to make sure both get what they need from the deal, he said. The city might not get so lucky with the next developer who comes along and wants to buy the property, the mayor told folks who filled the seats at DuPont City Hall.

“The bottom line upfront is the city doesn’t own this property,” Courts said. “It’s not up to us to say, ‘You cannot develop it.’ It’s up to us to work with them to do that.”

The post that got a planning commissioner fired

The week before a planned public hearing on the potential zoning changes, Elliott shared a post to the “Citizens for DuPont, WA” Facebook group.

“The Planning Commission will be having a Public Hearing Monday night,” Elliott wrote. “The commission will listen to public input on the proposed land uses around Old Fort Lake/Golf Course as indicated on the map below. We hope to see you there.”

The map she posted was a draft of potential zoning changes for Old Fort Lake. Elliott added labels to show where certain land uses could be allowed when the zoning is updated. That included the warehousing and manufacturing that’s being considered for part of the property.

“I didn’t take a stance one way or another, I just put it out there — ‘Hey, this is happening, come get involved’ … I never stated it was official,” Elliott told The News Tribune during an interview.

It was the map that apparently caught the public’s, and the mayor’s, attention.

More than 40 people showed up at at the Sept. 25 planning commission meeting, dozens more than usually are present.

Courts announced the postponement of the scheduled public hearing on the Old Fort Lake proposal.

That same day, he sent Elliott a letter saying she was being removed from the commission to which Courts had appointed her two years earlier. Her Facebook post, he wrote in the letter, had made it seem like the draft zoning proposal had already been signed and sealed.

“Your recent posting of a map on Facebook created the impression that it was an official City document or a product of the Planning Commission’s work,” Courts’ letter said.

“The Planning Commission did not produce the map. The Planning Commission never approved of the document’s production, content, or your dissemination of it as a commissioner. This conduct, and similar conduct, has wrongfully and negatively interrupted and interfered with official duties of the Planning Commission, City staff, and the City’s elected officials.”

Mayor softens his stance and seeks unity

Elliott later fired a letter back to Courts, saying DuPont’s city code holds that a majority of the City Council has to vote to remove an appointed official.

“Since no majority vote was taken by the Council, the dismissal was invalid and I will be taking my seat at the October 9th Public Hearing,” Elliott wrote.

In an interview with The News Tribune, Courts declined to answer certain questions about Elliott’s removal, saying it is a personnel issue.

He did say state law on removing appointive officers trumps local law and that the city’s code is in conflict with state law, which allows the mayor to appoint, and remove, officers and employees. The city attorney has advised him he was on solid legal ground in removing Elliott, he said.

“Her whole premise is based on the wrong law,” Courts said Wednesday.

The mayor’s position seems to have softened slightly in recent days, possibly due to national events.

Courts sent a second letter to Elliott on Tuesday saying she has until Nov. 1 to meet and talk with him face-to-face about what happened. Until then, he’ll allow her to serve on the commission so her voice can be heard on the zoning changes for Old Fort Lake.

“We live in a terribly divided era in this country. Particularly in the wake of the tragedy in Las Vegas, I am compelled to unify,” he wrote. “DuPont is better than this acrimony that you have played a significant part in fomenting. I will not be a party to widening those divisions.”

Courts told The News Tribune he originally appointed Elliott because he wanted a dissenting voice on the planning commission.

“I value her voice. I appointed her because I wanted her voice on that commission, she brings a unique perspective and passion, that’s valuable. Any organization if everyone is in agreement is either a dictatorship or a cult,” the mayor said. “I am big enough to hear dissenting voices.”

Elliott said she messaged the mayor Tuesday night, telling him she would contact his assistant to set up a meeting.

©2017 The News Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.