Planner plans for worst

Late last month, Flathead County Planning Director Jeff Harris put his Kalispell house up for sale, and gradually started looking for a new job. Even though the county commission won't rule on renewing his contract until April 12, Harris feels right in assuming that come July, he'll be out of work.

"I can't wait until a decision is made by the county," Harris says. "Unofficially, I've been pretty much told I won't have a job."

It's safe to say Flathead County has put Harris through the wringer over the past year. Last November, the Independent reported that the county commission had hired private investigator William Eisentraut to probe a number of citizen complaints against Harris. Harris' accusers—the same group that circulated a petition in July 2009 demanding Harris' resignation—alleged he'd willfully ignored planning and open meeting laws in regards to the Eagle's Crest subdivision in Lakeside.

Eisentraut, who received $10,000 from Flathead County for his five-month investigation, cleared Harris of any wrongdoing in December. Yet those months of controversy seem to have overshadowed five years of solid service.

"[The commissioners] have really only suggested that I've done excellent work," Harris says, adding his contract was renewed without a hitch three years ago.

Commissioner Joe Brenneman confirms, personally, that Harris has done a "great job" leading the county's planning office over the years, and Commissioner Jim Dupont doesn't refute Harris' qualifications as a planner. But Dupont seriously questions Harris' ability to deal with the complexities specific to Flathead County, and Administrative Officer Mike Pence admits there's "a fairly good chance" Harris' contract will not be renewed.

"I don't think Jeff fits into the parameters of Flathead County that much," Dupont says. "There's been an awful lot of controversy since I've been here, and since before I've been here."

Harris doesn't need to be warned twice. Now the Flathead planner is busy planning his own future.

"For my family's sake, I need to start looking," Harris says. "And I have started looking."

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