Overview

The Hearing Examiner is an administrative law judge appointed by the City Council. The Hearing Examiner's responsibilities and authority are set forth with particularity in the Spokane Municipal Code. The Hearing Examiner's primary role is to conduct public hearings and render decisions in certain administrative matters specified in the municipal code. In such proceedings, the Hearing Examiner acts as an impartial decision-maker, similar to a judge hearing a case in court. Broadly speaking, the Hearing Examiner conducts two types of public hearings: (1) hearings on applications; and (2) hearings on administrative appeals. The Hearing Examiner also provides advisory legal opinions, in very limited circumstances described further below.

Impartial Decision-Maker

The Hearing Examiner's core responsibility is to make decisions in quasi-judicial matters. A quasi-judicial matter characteristically involves conducting a public hearing, receiving testimony and evidence from the participants, and determining how applicable laws and regulations should be interpreted and applied in an individual case. In other words, the Hearing Examiner functions as an impartial decision-maker, akin to a judge presiding over a case in court. Because the process before the Hearing Examiner is similar to the decision-making process in court, it is characterized as “quasi-judicial.”

The process before the Hearing Examiner is intended to ensure fairness and neutrality in rendering decisions. Not surprisingly, this means that the Hearing Examiner cannot have a personal or financial stake in the outcome of a case. If the Hearing Examiner has a close relationship with a party or some interest in the subject property, the actual or perceived bias will preclude the Hearing Examiner's participation in that matter. Under the appearance of fairness doctrine, quasi-judicial proceedings before the Hearing Examiner must not only be fair in fact, but they must also be conducted to maintain the appearance of fairness. The Hearing Examiner is not allowed to prejudge the issues. Moreover, quasi-judicial decisions must adhere to the constitutional guarantees of due process. Due process principles require, for example, that interested parties receive adequate notice of the hearing; that the hearing is conducted in a fair and impartial manner; that an adequate and complete record of proceedings is maintained; and that the decision be made based upon the information in the record of the proceedings.

In recognition that the proceedings before the Hearing Examiner are judicial in nature, the Hearing Examiner cannot discuss the substance of a case with the participants or their representatives outside of the public hearing. A private communication between the decision-maker and an interested person is called an “ex parte contact.” Ex parte contacts intended to influence the outcome of a decision are prohibited. The reason for this rule is fairly straightforward. The neutrality of a decision-maker could be called into question if the he or she engaged in private communications with one party without the knowledge or participation the other party. The Hearing Examiner takes precautions to avoid situations in which ex parte contacts might inadvertently take place. For example, the Hearing Examiner's staff routinely screens all correspondence and telephone calls for the Hearing Examiner in order to prevent inappropriate contacts.

Hearings on Applications

The Hearing Examiner is the decision maker on certain land use applications, specifically those applications which require a public hearing prior to a decision being rendered. In a hearing on an application, the Hearing Examiner receives the testimony, evidence and argument both in favor and in opposition to the proposal. The public hearing on an application provides the public with the opportunity to learn about the proposal, get answers to questions about a proposal, and to provide comments and evidence related to the application. The Hearing Examiner is delegated the authority to make decisions on the following applications:

  • Zone Reclassification (Rezones) and Change of Conditions
  • Long Plat - Preliminary
  • Planned Unit Development (PUD) - Preliminary
  • Variances (including shoreline and floodplain variances)
  • Conditional Use Permit (CUP)
  • Plans in Lieu of Compliance
  • Certificates of Compliance

Hearings on Administrative Appeals

In some cases, when a decision is made by an administrative agency, the applicable law will allow an aggrieved party to appeal that decision to the Hearing Examiner. In those situations, the Hearing Examiner is not the original decision-maker, but instead acts in an appellate capacity. The public does not generally have the opportunity to comment in an administrative appeal. In the typical case, only the witnesses called by the parties may testify.

Under the applicable statutes, codes and ordinances, the Hearing Examiner has authority to hear appeals of certain administrative decisions by the following officials and bodies:

  • Director of Planning Services
  • Director of Engineering Services
  • Building Official
  • Responsible Official under the State Environmental Policy Act (“SEPA”)
  • Landmarks Commission related to applications for certificate of appropriateness and determination of eligibility
  • Animal control agency with respect to dangerous dog determinations
  • Community Advisory Board
  • Police Department seizure and forfeiture of personal property and other administrative actions (e.g. revocation of licenses)
  • Director of Neighborhood Services related to junk vehicles
  • Director of Finance in cases of utility tax appeals

Advisory Legal Opinions

Pursuant to SMC 02.02.040, the Hearing Examiner may also be called upon to provide an advisory opinion on the legal efficacy of a citizen initiative. Specifically, in situations in which the City Council does not simply pass a proposed initiative measure or submit it to the voters, the Hearing Examiner will be asked to provide a formal written opinion regarding the legal validity and effect of the proposed measure. The Hearing Examiner's legal opinion is advisory only, i.e., it is not binding upon the initiative sponsor or the city. Upon receipt of the Hearing Examiner's opinion, the initiative sponsor may elect to proceed with the measure unchanged, or may decide to revise the measure in light of the Hearing Examiner's analysis.


Contact Information

Room 605, City Hall
808 W. Spokane Falls Blvd.
Spokane, WA 99201

Phone: 509.625.6010
Fax: 509.625.6059
hearingexaminer@spokanecity.org

Brian T. McGinn
Hearing Examiner

Lee Ann Reid
Administrative Assistant