Update: Oct. 23, 4:46 pm, the Observer has included recently received comments from City Manager Jon Amundson.
On Jan. 4, 2022, newly elected Richland Councilwoman Theresa Richardson swore an oath to uphold city ordinances, including those that prohibit her from using her public office for the personal benefit of her and her family.
But she appears to have spent much of the next year violating those rules, newly obtained records show.
Richardson appears to have violated city ethics codes when she voted on two land and zoning matters related to her church — despite the fact that she had been personally involved in the church’s real estate planning and her husband was its chairman.
City records obtained under the state records law show that Richardson used her position to help her church by sharing information with her husband that she obtained as a city official from City Manager Jon Amundson. They also show her husband pushed the development services department to accept unusually favorable contract terms for city land that their church wished to buy.
Those efforts came in addition to other actions by Richardson and her husband to get city managers to override serious staff safety concerns about a permit for construction on their personal property. As the Observer reported last October, following her pressure on managers at the city threatened a well-regarded staffer with discipline for standing in Richardson’s way; the staffer later resigned, complaining that political influence had trumped the city’s integrity.
The twin efforts by Richardson and her husband involving their family’s interests significantly contributed to major problems at the city development services department that sparked concerns in the development community and were highlighted in an outside consultant’s report earlier this year. Notably, to combat poor morale and halt a flurry of departures by well-qualified employees, the consultant recommended city managers “avoid political interference” with staff.
Asked to comment, Richardson confirmed her votes and efforts to help her church. Though her actions violate the explicit language of city ethics code, she argued she did nothing wrong.
In response to the Observer’s question about Richardson’s role in the sale of city property to her church, City Manager Jon Amundson responded through an email from Deputy City Manager Joe Schiessl that Richardson had “stayed at arm’s length related to 350 Thayer.”
Richardson and her husband take leadership roles in new church
New Heights Church, a one story, L-shaped, beige masonry building with green trim, sits on the southeast corner of Thayer Drive and Duportail Street, in the Central Historic Richland neighborhood. The vestibule facing Thayer has glass block walls with recessed crosses made of tile on each side, reflecting the church’s mid-century construction.
In the 12 months before she took office in January 2022, Richardson and her husband were among a small, core group of leaders that helped found the New Heights Church and grow its membership.
In January 2021, an unnamed man “gifted” Richland Heights Baptist Church and a “generous” operating fund to former Bethel Church pastor Dave Bechtel to found New Heights Church, according to the New Heights website.
The Richland Heights church had lost most of its members, so Bechtel assembled a core “vision team” of 10 leaders to spearhead the new church’s growth.
On Feb 10, 2021, the Richland Heights church formally changed its name to New Heights Church, listing Richardson’s husband in state records as “governor,” meaning a person with authority to make decisions.
Later that spring, when Theresa Richardson filed to run for Richland City Council, she listed among her volunteer work “New Heights Church, vision team (2021-present).”
Richardson flunks first ethics test.
Richardson’s time on the vision team was one in which church leaders had growth and two real estate deals on their mind, according to documents, interviews and the church’s website.
One deal was to sell an 18,730-square-foot parcel to its north, at 404 Thayer, to a developer, Tim Bush, who has a close relationship with the church.
The other hoped-for deal was to acquire land to the church’s south, the city-owned property at 350 Thayer.
On January 4, 2022, Richardson joined the council for her first meeting since she won election in November. She swore an oath to uphold the city’s charter — its equivalent of the constitution — and its ordinances.
Those rules are the city’s equivalent of state laws, and when it comes to ethics for city councilmembers, they’re pretty clear:
- Publicly disclose any personal association with the matters that come before you — even “casual” links.
- Don’t discuss or vote on an issue in which you have personal involvement or close ties to the participants.
- Don’t use your elected public office for personal gain — including, but not limited to, financial gain — or to secure special treatment.
The first test of Richardson’s adherence to her oath came in the third vote of the meeting. Agenda item #9 included the rezoning of 404 Thayer —and the deal was explicitly listed as being initiated by New Heights, the church headed by her husband, and Bush. She voted in favor. As for her close personal association with the church and the people involved, she said not a word.
Asked about the vote by the Observer, the councilwoman said she had withdrawn from New Heights “vision team,” upon winning election. Therefore, she argued, her connection to the deal was as a “community member,” not as a council member. “I was not part of any previous discussions as a brand new council member,” she wrote.
However, Richardson’s argument is at odds with city ethics codes designed to prevent people from mixing the personal and the private, and from using their public office for personal gain, including for close family members. Not only that, but public records contradict her argument that she withdrew from church-related matters once she joined the council.
The deal stood to benefit not only Richardson’s church, where her husband was chairman, but Bush, her church’s ally. Bush, who operates a website called “War Room Ministries,” often hosts New Heights’ weekly men’s Bible study group and gives talks at the church. His pursuit of rezoning the church land predated the new church’s formation, according to Mike Stevens, Richland’s Planning Manager.
The Bush/New Heights plan called for rezoning the property from single-family to multi-family residential so it could become a six-townhome development.
Rezones can be lucrative. In late 2018, Bush purchased 1.5 acres of nearby city-owned parkland on Duportail just south of Thayer in a no-bid transaction for about $130,000. He had the property rezoned, created 18 townhouse lots and sold the lot to a builder for $1.8 million a year ago.
On the 404 Thayer property, the rezoning had already cleared its first hurdle by the end of April when councilmembers indicated approval for the zoning change, which could significantly boost its value.
On September 30 , 2021, New Heights sold Bush 404 Thayer for $70,000 — its value as assessed under its then-zoning of single-family residential. Richardson’s husband signed the paperwork.
Today, the church continues to use the 404 Thayer property for parking.
After voting on one New Heights deal, Richardson continues her personal interest in another — while pressuring city staff on a personal matter
The next deal involving the church to come before the council was the city’s decision to sell property at 350 Thayer, land that Richardon’s church hoped to buy.
The councilwoman told the Observer that she was the church vision team’s “point person” on the 350 Thayer deal until she won election in November 2021, and had inquired about buying it before her election.
Such inquiries were the reason that 350 Thayer was proposed for sale, Amundson told The Observer.
But the councilwoman did not distance herself from the deal upon taking office. Not only did Richardson remain the church’s conduit of information on the church after her election, records show, she used her position to obtain information directly from Amundson — then share it with her husband, the chairman of New Heights.
Records indicate she encouraged the arrangement, using her city email to thank Amundson for sharing church-related information with her, records show.
“Yes, of course I sent the information to (Richardson’ husband) because I could no longer be involved with any church business,” she wrote in response to the Observer’s questions. “I forwarded information to New Heights Church leadership so that they would be aware about the process for surplussing [sic] property.”
Richardson remained on the city’s distribution list regarding 350 Thayer even after taking office, placed there based on her personal interest expressed to the city’s Economic Development Manager Amanda Wallner, according to Wallner.
Richardson’s continued personal interest in 350 Thayer was significant because it was no secret to city staff. And the timing was significant, too. As city staff were handling Richardson’s church’s attempt to buy 350 Thayer, they were becoming aware of City Manager Amundson and Development Services Director Kerwin Jensen’s willingness to threaten and direct them to do as Richardson and her husband wished.
As the Tri-Cities Observer reported a year ago, soon after taking office Councilwoman Richardson met with Jensen about her and her husband’s plan to build an addition on their home. After a city plans examiner expressed concern that her family’s plans for the addition violated state construction safety laws, Richardson met with Amundson on May 10, 2022, discussing “our project” — an apparent reference to their addition plan— as well as her hopes that Amundson would make city staff more friendly to “investors.”
Notably, the plans examiner had told his manager, Kerwin Jensen, that to approve unsafe plans would be a crime under Washington law, records showed. “That’s how people die,” the examiner warned.
Despite those concerns, Amundson and Jensen exerted significant pressure on the staffer to approve the plans, records show. Jensen told the examiner to approve the plans despite the safety concerns. The plans examiner was threatened with discipline. A city employee who witnessed the pressure described it as inappropriate and appalling, calling the plans examiner highly qualified and a “huge asset to the city.”
The plans examiner resigned, writing, “We have let integrity fall victim to politics, permitting those with political power to influence how we react.”
Richardson’s involvement with 350 Thayer continues after her election
Rather than let city staff know that she would stay arms-length from the church’s real estate plans she’d been involved with before her election, Councilwoman Richardson showed every sign that her interest in 350 Thayer continued.
On March 23, 2022, Richardson attended a Richland Planning Commission public hearing regarding the proposal that the city sell the land — the sale that had been triggered by the interest of people like her, who’d asked about the land.
On March 28, she attended the Richland Economic Development Committee where the proposed sale of 350 Thayer Drive was on the agenda for approval.
These were the only committee meetings she attended, other than the ones she was assigned to, in the first six months of 2021, according to meeting minutes.
Finally, the surplus sale of the New Heights-adjoining property at 350 Thayer made its way to the City Council on April 19, 2022.
Richardson voted in favor of it, saying nothing of her involvement in the church’s plans for the property. Asked after the meeting if New Heights was interested in buying the property, Richardson told the Observer that she didn’t know.
Richland councilmembers are able to get information and answers to their questions more quickly and clearly than the public sometimes does. City Manager Amundson sends council members an emailed “CM Biweekly Update” with news about ongoing projects.
“Some councilmembers have inquired as to the process by which the marketing and surplus will occur” around the 350 Thayer property. Amundson wrote in his May 20, 2022, update. He outlined the sale process for 350 Thayer, the marketing plan, the bid deadline, and the notification process.
Four hours later, Councilwoman Richardson used her city email account to forward Amundsen’s heads-up on the process to her husband, giving the church a head start over others interested in buying the city land.
“David,” she wrote. “Note the detailed process regarding the 350 Thayer property below.”
When Planner Darin Arrasmith sent an announcement of the 350 Thayer sale on May 25, 2022, to interested parties, he included a notice to Richardson’s private email address, records show.
Meanwhile, in the weeks after her May 11 email to Amundson — in which she linked her goals for her personal home construction project to his performance as city manager — Richardson’s permit problems went away, and her permit was issued May 23, 2022.
Two weeks later, at a June 7 council meeting, Richardson volunteered to lead a committee to conduct Amundson’s yearly performance evaluation. Richardson had served on the council a little over 6 months.
On June 9, Richardson emailed to Amundson confirming she would lead the evaluation, agreeing that a consultant he suggested could facilitate it.
Committee recommends church for 350 Thayer
The city can declare property surplus when no present or future municipal need can be seen for it, according to the Richland Municipal Code.
The objectives of such sales under city code include stimulating “the city’s economic base to provide employment opportunities and tax revenues for the city and other local taxing entities.”
So bidders must not only submit a proposed purchase price, they also have to declare their intended use for the land.
When it came to 350 Thayer, the city received three bids:
- On June 1, Ken Bricker submitted a bid of $120,000 for the land, along with a plan for a single-family home.
- On June 13, developer Stan Nuxall, Jr bid the fair market price, which the city valued at $120,000. His plan: a development of three townhouses.
- On June 14, the church offered $100,000 in cash with a price escalator — in $3,000 increments — up to a maximum of $200,000. The bid, which proposed to use the land for a parking lot and expansion of the church, was signed by four church officials including its chairman, the councilwoman’s husband.
While the church offered the most money, it had a problem: city zoning requirements.
The property could only be used for single-family development. And only one bid clearly met the zoning requirement: Bricker’s proposal of a single-family home.
Not everyone agreed with that requirement. Former Richland councilmember Marianne Boring wrote in support of Nuxall’s plan for three townhomes development, noting the city’s “huge lack of entry-level homes.”
In any event, New Heights had a similar problem. The land at 350 Thayer totaled 14,468 square feet. Church buildings require lots larger than 20,000 square feet, according to city zoning requirements.
Nevertheless, a committee made up of a councilmember, two city committee members and Wallner picked the church bid.
On Aug. 3, Amundson emailed Councilwoman Richardson at her city account to notify her that a draft contract had been sent to the New Heights office on July 28. She responded, “Thank you.”
Richardson’s husband negotiates terms that could make city’s interests unenforceable
Once the city committee recommended New Heights, it was up to city staff to draft a contract.
To protect the public’s interests in economic development and shield the city from speculators and land-flippers, city contracts for surplus sales set deadlines for the buyer to complete the project, and restrictions on resale.
Importantly, the city has the right to buy back the surplus property if contract terms aren’t met.
Despite the church’s stated goal of expansion, the draft contract shared by city staff with New Heights omitted any mention of the church’s plans to use the land for church facilities. It mentioned only the plan for a tax-exempt parking lot.
In response, Richardson’s husband, David, proposed major changes that made the contract even weaker. He asked to cut a year off the time that the city had to reclaim the property if requirements weren’t met, from 36 months to 24 months. He also asked that the church be able to resell the property in just two years, rather than three.
The councilwoman’s husband’s draft was a significant departure from city practices. And it drew the attention of city higher-ups.
Wallner emailed Jensen on Aug. 11 to set up a meeting for the following week to discuss the negotiations. Jensen responded, “Thanks for involving me. That sounds like a good plan of action.”
On Aug. 19 Arrasmith wrote to the Councilwoman’s husband that the city agreed to his proposed changes.
Usually the contractual buy-back period in such sales extends longer than the project deadlines. That gives the city time to step in to protect the public if a buyer doesn’t keep their promises.
In an email message to the Observer, Amundson had a different view on the shorter buy-back period, ” It is in the City’s best interest to reduce the buy-back period from 36 months to 24 months, since it allows us to exercise the option sooner, should the party not perform according to the contract.”
The change in the New Heights contract meant that the city’s window to buy back the property closed on the same date as the church’s deadline to complete its project — making it difficult, if not impossible to enforce, one knowledgeable observer confirmed to the Observer.
“While the timelines must be closely monitored, enforcement is not a legal impossibility, “Amundson wrote and also added that he didn’t expect that the city would need to repurchase.
Asked to explain the change in contract terms, Wallner said, “The terms were requested by the buyer as this was an unanticipated regulation at the time of submission.”
Several other surplus contracts reviewed by The Observer did not have similar terms. Wallner was unable to provide similar city contracts.
Although the proposed contract mentioned only a parking lot, Richardson’s husband made clear that the church still planned a different use. “We would like to reserve the back half of 350 Thayer to include expanded facilities at some point in the relatively near future,” he wrote to Arrasmith on Aug. 30.
Church purchase sparks opposition
On September 28, 2022, the scoring committee’s recommendation went to the Economic Development Committee for approval. But it turned out the committee had little choice.
The packet provided to EDC members did not include the enforcement-challenged, unusually buyer-friendly contract they were voting on — only a staff summary that mentioned the scoring committee’s recommendation that the church’s bid seemed “most feasible for the property.”
During public comment Ginger Wireman, one of the directors of the newly formed Tres Rio Community Land Trust, outlined the bids for the committee members, and argued that housing would help the city more than the church’s proposed parking lot. She had obtained the bids through a friend’s records request.
“We have a crisis in not just low-income housing but workforce housing also and this lot is appropriate for three or four townhomes,” Wireman said to the committee. “Parking lots bring us no tax dollars and your job is to improve the economic situation of this community.”
When Committee member Joseph Potts asked to see the other bids, Arrasmith declined, saying the committee’s job was to vote up or down on the church’s bid and contract.
Members of the committee approved the sale.
Council approves the sale, stays mum on political interference
The city’s sale of 350 Thayer went to the Richland City Council on October 4, 2022. Richardson was absent.
The sale of 350 Thayer — for $123,000 — was included on the consent calendar, with items considered routine and non-controversial. Council members approved it without comment.
On December 20, 2022, with the city manager’s performance evaluation complete, the council approved an 8% raise for Amundson.
In January 2023, a consultant hired by the city, Matrix Consulting Group, completed an in-depth 135-page audit of the city permitting process. In it, the consultant highlighted concerns by internal city staffers as well as external “stakeholders” about poor morale at the development services department, which had overseen both Richardson’s permit problem and the sale of city land to her church. Five employees had left in a short period of time, including the plans examiner who resigned due to interference by Richardson, Amundson and Jensen in Richardson’s home permit.
“Stakeholders … expressed concern that well-qualified employees who had not left the department were actively seeking to find work elsewhere,” the consultant wrote. To combat the problems, the report recommended managers “avoid political interference in the substance of decisions made by staff.”
“I support and encourage the recommendation made by the consultant,” Amundson wrote recently in an email to the Observer.
In March, Deputy City Manager Joe Schiessl summarized the report to the members of the council, mainly focusing on the report’s discussion of speed of permitting.
He did not mention the consultant’s recommendation against political interference with staff, and nor did any councilmember.
“Nice presentation, Joe,” Richardson said.