This guide is a general overview of how public hearings are conducted before the Hearing Examiner. It is only an informal guide, which is intended to be helpful to hearing participants and observers. This guide is not a complete description of the rules and laws governing the hearing process. The Hearing Examiner's Office cannot provide legal advice to participants in the administrative process. If legal advice is needed, an independent attorney should be consulted for assistance.
As authorized by RCW 35.63.130, the City of Spokane has adopted the hearing examiner system to hear and decide specific administrative matters. The office of the hearing examiner was first established in 1986, when the City Council enacted its first hearing examiner ordinance. That ordinance, which has been amended from time to time, sets forth the basic functions and jurisdiction of the hearing examiner. The hearing examiner system was adopted in order to ensure fairness and due process in public hearings, in particular with respect to the decision-making process for land use and related administrative matters.
The basic functions of the Hearing Examiner are similar to those of a judge. “Administrative law judge” and “administrative hearings officer” are other titles used for this kind of position. In essence, the Hearing Examiner's role is to act as a neutral decision-maker with respect to administrative matters that are delegated to the Hearing Examiner by the City Council. The City Council delegates authority to the Hearing Examiner by adopting ordinances that enumerate the Hearing Examiner's functions and responsibilities. As a result, the scope of the Hearing Examiner's authority is set forth in the Spokane Municipal Code.
The Hearing Examiner has been assigned the responsibility to conduct public hearings and render decisions with respect to a range of administrative matters. More specifically, the Hearing Examiner conducts hearings on selected land use applications, such as long plats, planned unit developments, variances, and conditional use permits. The Hearing Examiner also hears appeals of certain administrative orders and decisions, including various decisions by the director of planning services, the director of engineering services, and the building official, to name a few examples. In addition to land use and administrative matters, the Hearing Examiner's jurisdiction includes appeals of dangerous dog determinations made by the animal control agency. The Hearing Examiner has also been appointed by the city police department to hear appeals challenging the seizure and forfeiture of personal property connected to drug-trafficking offenses and felony convictions, as well as other administrative matters.
All hearings conducted by the Hearing Examiner are open to the public. As can be inferred from the above, the Hearing Examiner holds two types of public hearings: (1) hearings on applications; and (2) hearings on administrative appeals. Although the basic process in the two types of hearings is very similar, there are important differences to consider. A participant in the hearing process should bear in mind that there are material differences between the two types of hearings, which can affect how and whether a person can participate in the hearing.
For a public hearing on an application, the hearing process begins when the reviewing department notifies the Hearing Examiner that the application is ready to be considered and issues a notice of hearing. The reviewing department will schedule a hearing date and notice will be provided as required in the Spokane Municipal Code.
For a public hearing on an appeal, the hearing process is initiated when an aggrieved party files an appeal of an administrative decision to the Hearing Examiner. The appeal must contain the information required under the municipal code, and must be filed within the time allowed, accompanied by payment of the applicable appeal fee. The appeal requirements and deadlines may differ depending upon the type of decision being appealed. A party desiring to appeal an administrative decision will need to consult the municipal code to ensure that the appropriate appeal procedures are followed in a specific case.
The Hearing Examiner may schedule a pre-hearing conference for complex matters to proceedings that are expected to be lengthy. The purpose of a pre-hearing conference is to address any procedural questions in advance and to clarify the issues to be heard, making the hearing process more efficient.
In an application hearing, the Hearing Examiner holds a public hearing to receive information and evidence presented both in favor of and opposed to a land use application or other development proposal. These hearings provide the general public with an opportunity to provide testimony and comment on a proposal, and to obtain responses to questions about a proposal. Any interested party may participate in an application hearing.
The hearing process varies depending upon the type of application being considered, and those procedures may be modified by the Hearing Examiner to address the needs or circumstances in a given case. That said, the hearing agenda for a typical land use application or development proposal will be similar to the following:
Although the hearing on an appeal is open to public observation, that does not mean that anyone who is interested can present testimony or evidence. In contrast to an application hearing, in which any interested party has an opportunity to provide comments for the Hearing Examiner's consideration, in an appeal hearing, only the parties to the appeal and witnesses called by the parties may present testimony and evidence. The “parties” to an appeal include any person or group that files an appeal (each an “appellant”). If a group files an appeal, that group is considered a single appellant, and typically must select one person to represent the group in the proceedings. The parties to the appeal also include the person or entity who responds to the issues raised in the appeal (each a “respondent”). The respondents may include an applicant for a permit or license, for example, when that applicant is not the appealing party. The City agency responsible for the decision being appealed is also typically designated as a respondent.
The hearing agenda for a typical appeal hearing will be something like the following:
The Hearing Examiner may seek clarification of the issues and may ask questions of participants at any time during the hearing. Cross-examination may be permitted in the discretion of the Hearing Examiner, but will typically be limited to the questioning of experts or those who present themselves as experts. The Hearing Examiner may modify the hearing process or impose procedural rules to fit the circumstances of a particular case. For example, the Hearing Examiner may impose time limits on oral presentations, and request interested parties to indicate in advance of their desire to speak. The Hearing Examiner may also request written submissions to clarify or further elucidate the materials or testimony offered at the hearing, or take other steps that the Hearing Examiner deems to be proper in order to ensure fairness, a complete record, and efficiency or economy. At the conclusion of the hearing, the Hearing Examiner may close the record of the proceedings, or establish a date that the record will remain open for further submission of written materials. In appropriate cases, the Hearing Examiner may also continue the public hearing to a future date.
All persons are prohibited from contacting the Hearing Examiner outside the public hearing for the purpose of influencing a decision. The Hearing Examiner's staff screens all correspondence and telephone calls to prevent prohibited contacts. Procedural questions about the public hearing process can be addressed by the Hearing Examiner's staff.
No oral decision is made at the hearing. After the hearing is concluded and the record is closed, the Hearing Examiner considers the matter further and then prepares a written decision. The Hearing Examiner's decision is issued in the form of findings, conclusions, and a decision on the application or appeal.
The Hearing Examiner's decision on an application or appeal is a final decision, unless a timely and proper appeal is filed. Typically, the Hearing Examiner's decision includes a statement, after the signature block, which states the appeal deadline and identifies what reviewing body will hear any appeal that is commenced.
Most appeals of a Hearing Examiner's decision are heard by the Superior Court. Appeals of some decisions are heard by the City Council. The timing and procedures for appealing vary according to the type of decision being appealed. The legal requirements to perfect an appeal can be quite technical, and therefore great care should be taken to follow the procedures that apply to a particular case. If assistance is needed in that regard, an experienced attorney should be consulted.
Room 605, City Hall
808 W. Spokane Falls Blvd.
Spokane, WA 99201
Brian T. McGinn