PORT ANGELES — A professional mediator will help Clallam County commissioners and Community Development Director Mary Ellen Winborn work out their differences.
The three commissioners said Monday they will meet individually with Winborn in online sessions hosted by Peninsula Dispute Resolution Center.
Mediation Coordinator Barbara Wilson outlined the process for the board in a work session that Winborn did not attend.
In a later interview, Winborn said she had requested mediation with commissioners last December to repair professional relationships that were damaged several years ago.
“Hopefully something positive and good will come out of it, but there’s no threat of a lawsuit or anything,” said Winborn, the nation’s only elected community development director.
“I just wanted some type of forum that we could speak to each other that wasn’t a public forum.”
No county business can be conducted in the mediation sessions under the Open Public Meetings Act, Civil Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Elizabeth Stanley told commissioners.
Wilson said the Peninsula Dispute Resolution Center helps its clients find common ground.
“The essence of what we do is we conduct conversations,” Wilson said.
“Hopefully in that conversation there is some understanding, some common ground that they discover.
“It can shift the relationship,” she added.
“We have seen it happen. We know it works. We know that it is helpful.”
Commissioner Bill Peach said he worked with Peninsula Dispute Resolution Center in its mediation of a controversy involving boat wake at Lake Sutherland.
Peach said he was “comfortable” with the proposed mediation.
“You do really, really good work in terms of getting people to listen to each other,” Peach told Wilson.
Commissioner Randy Johnson said his expectation is improved communication and trust.
“Certainly everything I’ve read says that this will be confidential amongst each one of us, individually,” Johnson said.
Commissioner Mark Ozias, board chairman, said there would be no further action for the board to take before mediation.
“We look forward to moving forward through this process,” he said.
Last year, the county’s Charter Review Commission recommended that commissioners and Winborn commission a third-party review of county ordinances and solicit a report on proposed changes to ordinances and operating procedures to clarify roles and responsibilities of the DCD.
Winborn asked commissioners to engage in mediation to improve trust and communication as an initial step to the Charter Review’s recommendation, according to an executive summary.
Ozias circled back to the mediation issue near the end of the 2 1/2-hour work session.
“I have to be honest, I don’t understand what we’re mediating, exactly,” Ozias said.
“I feel like what were really taking about here is can we work together as professionals and colleagues. I’m open to the process, but going into it, I’m having a hard time understanding how a mediation process is going to help.”
Ozias added he had a “hard time” spending public money on a dispute that he did not fully understand.
Johnson said the mediation should provide a framework for future impasses between the board and the elected DCD director.
Peach cited recent code enforcement cases that were resolved outside the auspices of DCD, including the Midway Metals scrap yard on U.S. Highway 101 between Port Angeles and Sequim.
Law enforcement intervention prompted a cleanup at Midway Metals in April.
“There’s an example of, ‘We’ve taken it as far as we can within the DCD framework, now it’s time to shift gears,’” Peach said.
Peach said mediation would help delineate “when do you decide to shift gears.”
“I’m just looking for some improvement in our process right now,” Peach added.
Winborn said her working relationships with commissioners deteriorated several years ago after she refused to issue a building permit for a 32,000-square-foot bed and breakfast proposed for East Sequim Bay Road.
Winborn was sued by the California developer, Judy Lee, and protested when commissioners and Lee agreed in May 2019 to have a third party review the application.
“I was pulled into so many executive sessions, and it got to the point where I just felt that I was being beat up,” Winborn said in a Monday interview.
“And then the case was exonerated.”
Winborn said her lines of communication with commissioners and county administration had remained closed.
“Mediation typically is for threats of lawsuits and stuff, but that’s not what this is about at all,” Winborn said.
“I just want us to work better together for the citizens in Clallam County, and I don’t think we do a very good job of that.”
Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at [email protected].