An exchange that started when a council member asked Mayor Roger Holen about the city's budget turned heated during last week's meeting of the White Salmon City Council.
During the Feb. 15 session, Brad Roberts asked for clarification of a Feb. 6 comment by Mayor Holen. Holen had suggested the City Council was impeding the city's efforts to obtain additional water rights by withholding money for engineering.
According to Holen, a water meeting planned in Walla Walla with representatives of the Washington Department of Ecology and Department of Health was canceled because the City Council had cut funds for planning and emergency engineering services.
Roberts pointed out that the City Council had not cut money for engineering and planning, but had only sought to move those funds into reserve, instead of keeping it in a more readily-available "emergency" category.
Council member Richard Marx -- who had initiated the resolution calling for the emergency funds to go into a respective city department's reserve fund -- asked for more details about the planned meeting in Walla Walla.
"So the trip to Walla Walla was going to be funded out of emergency engineering money?" questioned Marx.
Marx also asked who the city's representatives planned to meet with in Walla Walla.
"That's a disingenuous question. You know perfectly well who," Holen said.
"I sure do," Marx responded.
"Then why did you ask the question?" Holen replied.
"Because I want an answer," Marx said.
At that point, Mayor Holen said he was tired of what he characterized as the "fishing expedition" Marx had been engaged in
"You've been on a fishing expedition for a lot of months now," Holen said. "You've talked to the Department of Ecology, you've talked to the Department of Health, you've talked to the state Auditor's Office -- all for the purpose of accusing the administration and staff of malfeasance and/or misappropriation of city funds."
"Because I have to do homework," Marx said.
"Your city fishing expedition has failed and yet you keep fishing," Holen continued. "Most recently, you made a call to a private party in Walla Walla to confirm that the city of White Salmon has been negotiating for purchase of water rights and you found out that indeed we were. You also contacted Canfield & Associates, the city's insurance carrier, to ask for an investigation of the city administration and staff for misappropriation of city money. You also informed the insurance carrier that the city's water well field is being controlled from the home of the director of the Public Works Department, a totally outrageous statement. Instead of working with the City Council and the administration, you've been acting against the City Council and the administration. You usurp the authority of the City Council and are attempting to hijack the city administration."
"Absolutely not," Marx said.
"I believe we should all resent and repudiate his actions," Holen added.
Marx said he was trying to find out where the budget problems were coming from.
"The allegations are preposterous," Marx explained. "I have audit reports that show $474,000 of exceeding the budget. The fact you make amendments after the fact doesn't matter. That's in the audit report. I'm trying to get to the bottom of this, and I will."
Marx said he was not engaged in an investigation.
"I asked the state auditor, and they told me to talk to attorneys. I talked to the attorneys, and they told me to talk to Canfield & Associates to get some sort of help," Marx explained. "It's not an investigation. It's a service they offer, being our insurance carrier."
Marx added that he believed the budget process was flawed.
"I've been through budget committee processes three years now, and they're all the same," Marx said. "Everything is piecemeal, and at the end everybody is completely dumbfounded yet we approve a budget that appears to be $1.2 million more than the previous year."
Holen told Marx his approach to the concerns was misguided.
"I'm suggesting, Mr. Marx, that you work through the committee system, which is established by state law, and that you work with your fellow council members instead of going off on your own," Holen said. "These agencies are totally amazed at your behavior."
"Really? they don't seem to be too amazed when I'm talking to them," Marx pointed out.
At that point, the meeting was adjourned.
On Monday, Holen said he believes Marx is out of line.
"He is making accusations that Wil [Keyser] and I are misspending the city's money. I've put up with that crap long enough," Holen said. "I said what had to be said. Not only the City Council needed to understand, but also the public needs to understand, that this sabotage of city government has to stop. He's going off like Don Quixote, and the crowning blow was when he told the insurance carrier the well fields were being controlled from Wil Keyser's house. That goes beyond suspicious to being paranoid. His fishing expedition has come up with zero. His net is empty."
Holen added that he believes Marx should apologize.
"I think he owes the council and staff an apology. He can say what he wants about me, but Wil is a private citizen, and he is protected by slander laws," Holen said.
For his part, Marx said he planned to continue to keep a watchful eye over the city's budgetary dealings.
"I have every right to call the state auditor and attorneys to get direction or help. As an elected City Council member, I'm responsible for the budget," Marx explained. "If there are budget problems -- and I think there are -- then I'm responsible for it. My job as a City Council member is to keep track of the budget. If doing my job is upsetting to them, maybe we need to talk about it."
Marx added that he was surprised at the attempt to keep him from looking into how the budget is being handled.
"I am not going to sit there and rubber-stamp everything that comes from the city administration. That is what it appears they want," Marx said.