TONASKET – Sometimes it seems as though no one pays attention until you make a mistake.
That had to be going through Tonasket Mayor Patrick Plumb’s mind as he faced a full house of angry constituents at the Tuesday, Aug. 14, city council meeting.
After months of mostly empty chairs at council meetings, it was standing room only after Plumb made a number of remarks at the July 24 meeting when discussing the possibility of putting a public transportation sales tax hike to support Okanogan County Transportation and Nutrition on the ballot.
At the July meeting, Plumb expressed misgivings about the tax, in part because he said that there was a greater need for criminal justice services than for seniors, and because he said that the buses were being used to campaign for Democratic candidates.
Plumb opened Tuesday’s meeting by apologizing for his earlier remarks, admitting that he’d spoken on a topic about which he wasn’t fully informed.
“I was under the impression that Okanogan County Transportation and Nutrition was a government entity, that they were acting under the auspices of a county organization. They are truly not as far as I know now, based on the … extensive amount of things I’ve read,” Plumb said.
The day of the July 24 meeting was the day that Ed Jeffko, a close friend of Plumb’s, was reported missing in his single engine plane, which he said was a factor.
“I was emotionally distraught, it was the day we’d found out Ed had disappeared,” he said. “I wasn’t able to effectively communicate my surprise at the taxes that were in front of us. We were considering a six-tenths of a percent of sales tax increase, and we are the only organization that can do that for the City of Tonasket. So, shell-shocked was probably where I was at…
“Also, as it’s a private non-profit organization… I also have to apologize to Chris Zaferes, since he bought that bus from a private organization. It had nothing to do with government. The reason why I was concerned is because municipalities have to be very careful with their surplus…
“It’s frustrating in government to see the quickness that people come to you for taxes. It bothers me a lot that it caused this much disruption in you guys’ life. I totally support (Cathy) Anderson driving the bus and I wave — I didn’t know that program was the same this one was. I knew that was private, I didn’t know this was.
“All that being said, I hope you can accept my sincere apology,” he concluded. “I did not speak on behalf of the council or the staff.”
There was a smattering of applause after Plumb’s remarks, but several others had their say as well.
Leanne Whitener, OCTN’s executive director (and an Omak City Council member) said that she had come to the meeting intending to ask for an apology, and wanted to clear up misconceptions about OCTN’s purpose and practices.
“We have never (used the buses for political purposes) and will never,” Whitener said. “We receive government funding – federal and state funding. We have to sign assurances that we will never do that, and we do not.”
She said that when the buses are sold, all markings are removed before the transaction is completed.
“We sell our buses in a closed bid process,” Whitener said. “What the new owners choose to do with their bus is their business. We don’t own them any more. So if one of the purchased buses is used for a purpose that someone in the community doesn’t like, then they need to take that up with that person.”
Whitener said that so far this year (through June), OCTN had provided 35,752 rides within Okanogan County, the inner city bus system had provided 6,809 rides, the shuttle service 6,984 rids and the door-to-door service 17,899 rides.
“(Projected to the end of the year) that would be a seven percent increase over the rides we provided in 2011,” she said. “The service is needed and the service is growing.
“We help a lot of people, not just seniors. The general public, low income, the disabled, everyone. The buses are all ADA equipped. We are happy to do this service. It took 22 years (to build). It’s a good program.”
OCTN is a private non-profit organization, although it receives some government funding for its transportation services through federal and state grants, along with money contributed by cities in the service area (including $1,000 per year in recent years from Tonasket) and through private donations.
“And yes,” Whitener said, “at some point in time it may have to have tax-based funding, because that is the way the DOT is going to start working their grant programs.”
Chris Zaferes said Plumb’s statements about using the bus – which had been purchased from OCTN – to improperly campaign were defamatory and slanderous, and challenged Plumb to arrest him and prove his wrongdoing in court.
“These statements made by Mayor Plumb concerning myself, Chris Zaferes, and the late Okanogan County clerk, Jackie Bradley, are false and without any foundation,” he said. “Mayor Plumb also ridicules and insults and demeans our senior citizen population and their needs.”
Zaferes recalled the work he and Bradley had done in the past that secured the fish viewing platform at Chief Tonasket Park, as well as helping to get a public transportation system up and running.
“(We) appeared not only in Tonasket, but in other towns around the county, to secure funding for a bus replacement program for a limited, but essential, public transportation system,” Zaferes said. “… I can’t recall receiving an official statement from the council thanking us for our efforts. What we received are statements by Mayor Plumb which are injurious to the late Jackie Bradley, and exposes her to contempt and ridicule and to defame a fine public servant, who is not here to defend herself.”
After challenging Plumb to have him arrested if he believed he’d violated state law, Zaferes appealed to the council.
“You are elected officials in your own right,” he said. “When you hear or witness statements which are completely out of order, you must speak up, for to remain silent only encourages the same shameful conduct.
“I will confer with my attorney as to whether I will proceed further in this matter.”
Cathy Anderson, driver of OCTN Bus 14, said she appreciated the apology but that she was embarrassed for the mayor and the city.
“You made it sound like we were represented by a person who was not informed, Anderson said. “You used inappropriate language, which you have said. We all have bad days, but that doesn’t excuse it. You came across as arrogant and uncaring. You insulted the bus company. You insulted seniors. You insulted people that ride the bus and those that don’t.
“I am so proud of the people that ride the bus, I can’t even tell you, because I get emotional. When you wave at me and people wave at me when I’m driving in town, they’re not waving at Cathy Anderson … they’re waving at that little white bus. Because they know the services we provide.”
Anderson discussed some of what she did in a typical day. That particular day included 66 stops in eight hours. Anderson said she often takes people (not just seniors) shopping and when delivering meals, checks on the well-being of the seniors receiving them.
“You did blow it, and I really expect to see your apology in the paper,” she said. “There’s a lot more to that little white bus than just a blonde lady that drives around here and putzes.”
Jerry Beeman added his thanks for the apology and said he hoped that the city would continue with its annual contribution to OCTN’s funding.