Earlier this year City Councilmember Theresa Richardson pulled strings at the city of Richland to overcome staff concerns about a permit she was seeking for an addition to her family home, the Tri-Cities Observer has learned.
She sought and obtained the personal involvement of City Manager Jon Amundson and other managers to overcome a Richland plans examiner’s concern that her family’s plans for the addition violated state construction safety laws and city building codes.
The plans examiner, Ty Jennings, told his manager, Kerwin Jensen, that to approve unsafe plans is a crime under Washington law, according to the records obtained under the Washington Public Records Act. “That’s how people die,” Jennings warned Jensen.
Despite those concerns, Amundson and Jensen appear to have exerted significant pressure on Jennings to approve the plans, according to the records. On at least one occasion the plans examiner was threatened with discipline. On another, Amundson and the city personnel director were listening as Jensen told the examiner to approve the plans despite the safety concerns. A city employee who witnessed the pressure described it in an email as “inappropriate” and appalling.
On June 22, Jennings —a highly regarded veteran examiner who’d received some of the highest certifications available to the profession — submitted his resignation, writing, “We have let integrity fall victim to politics, permitting those with political power to influence how we react.”
When Tri-Cities Observer asked Richardson on two recent occasions about the handling of the matter, she twice declined to discuss it.
Amundson, in an email to the Observer, defended her request for his involvement in her personal home plans.
“Ms. Richardson’s personal experience with the application review process provided a unique opportunity to share her experiences at a level of the organization where appropriate change could be effected to the benefit of all citizens,” he wrote on Oct. 17.
Amundson also asserted that the city did not approve the permit for Richardson’s addition, claiming that “therefore one cannot reasonably conclude that favoritism played any role in the City’s handling of the Richardsons’ application.”
However, Amundson’s point is unclear. Public records show that on May 23 the city did issue a permit to Richardson approving the addition, bearing the number BR-22-00738.
“PEOPLE COULD DIE”
Asked about the propriety of Richardson’s actions, Amundson wrote, “As you know, individuals do not lose their opportunity to participate, as citizens, in processes involving their government merely because they may serve in an elected capacity.”
However, the city manager did not directly respond to a question of whether he felt Richardson’s contacts with city building staff to advocate for her addition plan had legally complied with the Richland City Charter.
The charter appears to take a different view from Amundson. It prohibits elected-official interference with staff, and councilmembers take an oath to uphold it.
The city manager form of government is intended to protect staff from political interference and prevent individual elected officials from affecting the day-to-day workings of the city. The city council is supposed to set city-wide policy as a group.
Under Section 4.05, entitled “Council Not to Interfere,” the charter states that “Except for the purpose of inquiry, the Council and its members shall deal with the administrative branch solely through the manager,” meaning the city manager.
Richardson, a former executive director of the local affiliate of Habitat for Humanity, took it upon herself to personally overcome the concerns raised by the city of Richland plans examiner, records show, rather than leave the advocacy to members of her project team or her spouse — who was also very involved with the project.
State construction laws, building codes and the reviews by municipal plans examiners are crucial to ensure the safety of the community, a leader of the Washington Association of Building Officials told the Observer.
“People could die. That’s why our code officials take their jobs very seriously,” Tara Jenkins, executive director of WABO, said in a telephone interview. “Code officials are hidden heroes, first preventers, so your house doesn’t fall down.”
RICHARDSON SUBMITS APPLICATION
On March 4, 2022 — two months after she was sworn in as a councilmember — Richardson’s husband, David, submitted a permit application to the city for an addition to their home. Valued at $161,548, the project included a partially , underground workout room, and a 369-square-foot outdoor patio and shade structure, called a pergola, situated above it.
Development Services Director Kerwin Jensen’s notes on Richardson’ permit application list a Feb. 15 “mtg with Teresa(sic) Richardson,” indicating that councilmember Richardson met with him personally to discuss the application three weeks before submitting it.
On March 25, architect Russell C. Page of Spokane Valley submitted drawings for the Richardson’s addition to Jennings, the plans examiner, to review for safety and code compliance. Jennings responded March 30 with questions that included a request for calculations from a structural engineer to confirm that the proposed underlying structure, for a workout room, could support the concrete patio and pergola that was to go in above it.
Jennings had been with the city of Richland for five years, first as a building inspector and then as a plans examiner. He has one of the highest certifications for the job, Master Code Professional (MCP). According to the International Code Council (ICC), only 1,000 people worldwide have that certification. ICC codes are the basis for Washington’s building codes.
In addition, the ICC website lists Jennings as a certified building official (CBO) and a certified fire marshall (CFM) along with about twenty-five other certifications.
HIGHER-UPS TAKE NOTICE
Records show that Richardson’s application soon began receiving attention from higher-ups, including Jensen, the city development services director.
In the following document excerpts, the Observer is removing Richardson’s address, replacing it with the words “Richardson’s address” in brackets.
On April 12, Jensen sent an email asking for regular updates on the addition plans at [Richardson’s address]. He addressed the email to Jennings as well as Building Official Michael Boring. For reasons that are unclear, the email also went to Director of Parks and Public Facilities Joe Schiessl and a human resources staffer at Richland Parks and Recreation. Shiessl was promoted three months later to Deputy City Manager with responsibility for overseeing the development office.
Even as the plans examiner sought additional safety assurance from the architect and engineer, Richardson visited the planning office on April 14, records show.
On April 15, in an email to all development services departments, Director Jensen appointed himself to serve as interim building official, filling a vacancy left by Michael Boring’s resignation. That made him Jennings’ direct supervisor.
On April 28 a permit technician in Jensen’s office sent a copy of the second review questions to Richardson’s personal email address. The reviewer, Jennings, continued to ask for calculations to support the safety of the design.
On May 6, according to notes taken by Jensen, Jennings told him that he was going to ask the third time for the calculations to show safety..
Jensen, however, suggested that the architect’s stamp could be enough, saying, “why don’t we approve plans that have the architect’s stamp on it?”
Jennings responded that he had answered that question in previous discussions. Jensen wanted to discuss that further, he wrote, but instead, Jennings “stormed” out of the room with a parting comment.
“That’s how people die, Kerwin,” Jennings said according to Jensen’s notes.
RICHARDSON ENLISTS AMUNDSON
Records show that at some point Richardson began engaging with Amundson personally about her desire to overcome the examiner’s safety concerns about her family’s permit application. That included a meeting Richardson held with Amundson on May 11. That morning, before the meeting, Richardson sent an email to Amundson suggesting he read an attached email to “frame our discussion.”
The attached May 10 email was sent to her by her husband bearing the subject header, “Conversation with Russell Page – Architect.” The email said the architect was “aware of your role at the city” and included the architect’s list of complaints.
The list included a line underlined by her husband: “One of the biggest frustrations has been the city’s building technician wanting to question and validate the work of the industrial engineer.”
After the meeting, Richardson sent Amundson an email entitled, “Follow-up Thoughts.”
The message appeared to link her personal permit situation to whether he, as city manager, could attract outside investment to the city and succeed in changing the culture and attitude of city employees.
“This challenge, which others before you tried to avoid, could be disguised as one of your best opportunities to implement your vision of a culture of servant leadership throughout the City,” she wrote. “It all might seem unclear and unsettling now, yet believe that the right people will start to emerge and rise to the top. Potentially, this will become a really cool ‘tribal story’ for you.
“Also, and I just have to say it again, I’m not concerned about our project. It will happen eventually because we are committed to invest in the City of Richland verses (sic) having a second home somewhere else.
“My hope is that much more creative, innovative, and hardworking investors will also see Richland as the place worthy of their investment.”
THE PRESSURE RATCHETS UP
On May 13, pressure mounted on Jennings as he continued to insist on proof that the plans would not end in disaster.
In a subsequent memo to the Richland Human Resource Department Jennings described the pressure being put on him to approve a permit for the proposed project at [Richardson’s address].
Jennings wrote that he spoke with Jensen at around midday May 13 and Jensen wanted Jennings to review the architect resubmission ASAP.
Jennings wrote, “I assured KJ that the review would be complete today or first thing Monday morning,” and also told Jensen, “I had concerns that one correction may have not been adequately addressed.”
He also told Jensen that he was leaving a little early for a personal appointment and, according to Jennings, Jensen said he was fine with that.
At around 2:30 p.m. Jennings wrote that he was meeting with Fire Marshall Ken Buechler about an unrelated project when Kerwin Jensen interrupted the meeting.
“KJ indicated that I was to return to my desk and could not leave until the plan was approved. I indicated that I did not feel comfortable with the directive to approve if there was indeed a known violation. KJ then indicated he would be standing above me, observing over my shoulder while I was to approve the plan. It became immediately clear that KJ wanted the plan approved irrespective of the review.”
At that point Jennings left, noting in the memo that he had already been clocked out for 15-30 minutes.
At about 3:00 p.m. Jensen left a voicemail message and Jennings provided a transcript in his memo. The message suggested that the development director had been discussing Jenning’s handling of the permit review with Amundson and the city’s human resources director, Lacey Paulsen.
“Hi, this is Kerwin Jensen. I need to have you come back to work immediately and report back to work so that we can finish what we need to get done today. I have Lacey Paulson (sic) and Jon Amundson with me here, but I expect you to get back to work here within the next 15 or 20 minutes so that we can complete the project that I talked to you about a few minutes ago. Thank you.”
Buechler sent a May 15 email describing the incident to Fire Chief Tom Huntington describing Jensen’s “Inappropriate Behavior.”
Buechler described the May 13 conversation much as Jennings did but with more detail. He wrote that Jensen acted “aggressively” and talked to Jennings “in the manner that a parent might speak to a 2-year-old.”
Buechler said Jensen ordered Jennings to not just review Richardson’s permit application but to approve it with Jensen standing there. When Jennings responded that he had already signed out for the day and was leaving, Jensen said “No! You are not leaving! You are going to sit at your desk. I am going to stand right here behind you until Richardson’s project is signed off.”
Buechler said Jensen’s tone and volume was “ excessively aggressive and created a very uncomfortable situation for me to excuse myself from,” calling Jensen’s behavior “unprofessional.”
Buechler praised Jennings’ work and noted that Kennewick and Pasco’s building officials and fire marshalls lean on Jennings for expertise when they’re stumped on code interpretation on their projects.
“Ty is the smartest person I have ever known,” Buechler wrote, “and a huge asset to the City.”
PRESSURED EXAMINER RESIGNS
The fourth review of the plans by Jennings on May 17 still left questions according to records.
On May 18, however, Jennings received sufficient information from the designer to approve the plan.
The city issued a permit for the project on May 23.
Jennings submitted his resignation on June 22.
He wrote, “The direction of the City, particularly within the Development Services Division, has made it increasingly difficult to feel that I’m a valued contributor within our team.”
“In place of team work, we have begun to foster infighting and finger pointing. Responsibility to our colleagues has fallen to the side in favor of taking care of ourselves, first and foremost,” he continued.
“We race towards mediocrity and aspire to be in the middle of the pack,” he added.
“We have let integrity fall victim to politics, permitting those with political power to influence how we react.”
CONSTRUCTION CONCERNS RESURFACE
Developments since Jennings’ resignation, including subsequent construction problems at Richardson’s home, suggest that the departed plans examiner’s concerns may have been well placed.
Specifically, Richardson has had to change her construction plans.
Jennings’ concerns, records show, pertained to the construction method in Richardson’s plans and calculation errors from her engineers.
Normally a permit is issued and is done after a city inspection verifies proper construction according to plan.
In this case, it appears the May 23 permit issued to Richardson for her home addition ended up having to be halted due to subsequent construction issues. Now, a new, revised permit must be issued.
When the Observer asked Amundson, the city manager, to clarify why he told the Observer that Richardson had not received her permit when records show the permit was, in fact, issued, he responded in an email.
“The permit was not exercised,’ Amundson wrote, “as there was a change in the proposed construction method that has yet to be approved.”
Great reporting – Absolutely unacceptable the a council member would try to get the city manager to intervene on her behalf (and equally unacceptable that he did.)
I found this particularly interesting because a builder recently put in a permit application for building a cover for our patio. The city required that he provide engineering data on its safety, and they didn’t issue the permit until they were satisfied. It held our very simple project up a few weeks but, while I had complete faith in our builder, I was glad that that the city exercised due diligence.
Thank you for reading the Observer. I appreciate your comment and agree that a second set of eyes on a project plan is not a bad thing.
After reading this complaint I went directly to Theresa to ask her what was going on. I believe Theresa has been misquoted and the situation is not as portrayed in this article. She takes her job very seriously and is a woman of integrity. Please contact her directly if you have complaints, rather than using social media, which can easily lead to misunderstanding.
Hi Chris, Thank you for reading the Observer. When I posted the article in the Observer, I emailed Councilmember Richardson the link and asked her to contact me as soon as possible if she found any inaccuracies or had comments. She did not respond. The quotes in the article come directly from documents obtained from the city of Richland through public record requests. As noted in the article, I was unsuccessful twice in getting comments from the councilmember before publication. Thank you again for reading the Observer.
After reading this complaint I would like to comment. I have know Theresa and David Richardson for many years and have worked beside them on community projects. I know Theresa to be of the highest integrity with a heart to serve our community. Since being elected to the city council she has been diligently pursuing her passion of finding solutions for affordable housing. I have always known Theresa to do things by prescribed guidelines. Your article implies that she does not. I have spoken to Theresa regarding this issue and would encourage readers to take their concerns directly to Theresa. You will find her a kind and gracious person willing to listen.
Hi Amy, Thank you for your comment. I sent Councilmember Richardson my findings in advance of publishing and requested comment for the sake of accuracy and fairness, and she did not respond. When I posted the article in the Observer, I sent her the link and asked her to contact me as soon as possible if she found any inaccuracies or wished to comment. She has not responded. I appreciate your comment. Randy
I too know Theresa to be a woman of upmost integrity, kindness and genuine care for others. The article itself quotes Theresa saying “I’m not concerned about my project, it will get done eventually.” What she is concerned about are Richlands processes and how they could possibly be more efficient. This piece seems to have the intention to smear Theresa’s reputation directly related to her true passion which is policies related to affordable housing. Please read with a grain of salt and go to Theresa directly with any concerns.
Hi Jennine, Thank you for your comment. I sent Councilmember Richardson my findings in advance of publishing and requested comment for the sake of accuracy and fairness, and she did not respond. When I posted the article in the Observer, I sent her the link and asked her to contact me as soon as possible if she found any inaccuracies or wished to comment. She has not responded. I appreciate your comment. Randy
All these comments about what a nice person Teresa Richardson is seem to miss the point, don’t they? She inappropriately went to the City Manager for help in getting her permit approved, and appears to have succeeded in having pressure placed on the permitting official. Even “nice” people don’t always follow the rules.
By throwing in comments that she is only concerned with how the city works, that this is an opportunity for the City Manager, she is deliberately obscuring her real goal. If Richardson thinks that the city should change how it works, she should bring that issue to the Council. They, as a group, can then decide if an investigation and changes are needed.
If it’s really about how the city attracts investors, it’s hard to understand what she is asking of the permitting process. Does she want to make it easier to build sub-standard housing by not following up on Code concerns?
Thank you for your comment. I sent Councilmember Richardson an email with questions that addressed some of your concerns. She did not respond. Randy
Thank you, Nancy Doran, for summing it up for me and the other Richland voters that although Councilmember Richardson may be a nice person she certainly did not act in the best interest of the residents she represents and I find that her unwillingness to respond to multiple requests from The Observer to address the details found in this article to speak for itself. Jon Amundson has acted unethically on several issues and looks like a real fool again in this situation. Why is Kermit Jensen still employed and why isn’t Lacey Paulsen doing her job? I really appreciate this type of reporting!
Hi, James, Thank you for your comments and thank you for reading the Observer. Randy
Without going into too much detail, I can say that trying to get a permit approved by Mr. Jennings for anything other than “prescriptive” aka cookie cutter building was a task that made me crazy, furious, and added 4 months and more than a few thousand dollars to my project. Despite all the safety, engineering, and structural proof requested, there was always another (often unreasonable) requirement that would appear. It’s unfortunate that Ms. Richardson used her connections to try to move things along, but honestly, there were times I wished I could do the same. I wish the Richardsons would have replied to your request for their side of the story. I appreciate The Observer, but this article doesn’t tell the whole tale.
I appreciate the comment. I also wish Councilmember Richardson had commented. Thank you for reading the Observer.