Joshua Freed has taken criticism from residents in a subdivision where his company built some of the homes. It’s not the first time conflict-of-interest questions have been raised about the Bothell City Council member and former mayor.
Marie Manuchehri moved into what she thought would be her dream home in the Bentley subdivision of Bothell in May 2014. The new, $815,000 house featured granite countertops, stainless-steel appliances, tiled bathrooms and hardwood floors over two spacious levels.
But cracks in the Sheetrock around windows and doors started to appear soon afterward. By the next March, a large bulge had erupted in the dining-room floor and tiling in the master bath started to fold.
Manuchehri said she repeatedly tried to get the homebuilder, Element Residential, to address the problems, but she hesitated to contact the city, whose inspector had signed off on the construction. That’s because the owner of Element was also City Council member and former Mayor Joshua Freed.
“The person who is on the City Council and is supposed to be representing me and protecting me is doing everything he can to not fix a faulty home that the city permitted,” said a frustrated Manuchehri, a former oncology nurse turned energy healer and author.
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Subsequent examinations by a privately retained structural engineer and a city inspector found deficiencies in the foundation. The size and thickness of concrete pier pads holding up the house weren’t as large as the design required, and foundation posts weren’t centered on the pads, but were off to the sides, according to the written reports.
The problems in the foundation, “could cause adverse effects in the long-term use of the house,” said Mike DeLack, Bothell building official who supervises the city inspectors.
In late July, Manuchehri filed an ethics complaint with the city of Bothell, alleging eight violations including that Freed has a conflict of interest in his roles as both homebuilder and City Council member, that his dealings with her lacked transparency and that Freed failed to follow up with city building officials regarding expedited permits for the repairs on her house.
The city’s ethics code calls on elected officials to avoid conflicts of interest, to act with transparency in their public dealings and not to interfere with city staff carrying out their responsibilities.
Bothell Interim City Attorney Paul Byrne dismissed the complaint Aug. 1, although Manuchehri said she wasn’t notified of the ruling until Aug. 23, when a reporter inquired about the outcome with the city.
In a memorandum to the City Council and the city manager, Byrne said all of Freed’s actions were taken in his role as a private builder and that none occurred while he was acting as a council member.
“All eight allegations stem from a civil dispute between two private parties,” Byrne concluded.
Freed issued a statement on the dispute noting that he was limited in what he could say because he is still negotiating with Manuchehri to resolve the problems in her house.
“My company has sold hundreds of homes over the past 11 years to satisfied homeowners. While we strive for 100 percent satisfaction at move-in, in those occasions where issues arise post-sale we work in good faith to resolve them. This is the approach we are taking with this homeowner’s warranty claims. This issue has no connection whatsoever to my public service as was confirmed by the prompt dismissal of the complaint,” Freed wrote.
Freed came under fire last year when he was mayor for purchasing the back nine of the Wayne Golf Course after a city option to buy the 39-acre property had lapsed. Freed, who had planned to build high-end homes on the land, was cleared of conflict-of-interest allegations in that case as well, because the city’s interest had lapsed.
But a new council majority, more critical of development in the city, was elected in November, and a new mayor voted in by the other council members. Freed’s council term is up in 2017.
Freed ultimately sold the back nine for $7.1 million to the conservation group Forterra.
Freed has also faced previous criticism from Bentley homeowners who complained about cracks in foundations, unstable decks, rolling floors and interior doors that no longer closed. He said the range of complaints was typical for new construction and that his company followed up with all the residents to address the problems.
Freed’s company built 48 homes in the subdivision, and two other companies built the rest.
The city says it’s aware of one other homeowner who hired a private inspector and identified serious structural problems with an Element-built house there, and that the other two builders’ homes haven’t seen similar problems.
In February, frustrated by the lack of progress on making repairs to her home, Manuchehri hired prominent Seattle lawyer Dave von Beck, who specializes in construction-defect litigation.
Last year, von Beck successfully sued California-based Shea Homes for failing to adequately waterproof hundreds of homes at Trilogy at Redmond Ridge.
He called it “very unusual” to have a public official who is also a developer in the same city.
“It creates perceptions, especially with buyers of homes that turn out to have serious problems, that something is awry,” von Beck said.
He said cities are largely immune from lawsuits over faulty construction if they are generally following professional standards for inspections.
In the case of Manuchehri’s house, von Beck said, “liability here is firmly on the builder.”
Bothell building officials acknowledge that residents of the Element-built homes in the Bentley neighborhood may not notify the city if problems develop.
“There may be some homeowners who are reluctant to call the city, in this case, because their builder is on the City Council,” said DeLack, the city building official. He said the city provides free troubleshooting for homeowners with problems or concerns.
DeLack said the city strives to ensure builders are meeting building codes in their construction but is unable to be on job sites around the clock.
He estimates that a builder constructs a house over about six months while a city inspector visits about 12 times for a total of about six hours.
“You’re fooling yourself if you think we’re going to catch everything,” he said.
He said that while Element was completing the Bentley construction, the company employed seven or eight different project superintendents.
The inspector for the city also left his job in 2014 and took a job in another city. That makes tracking down the cause of any one problem nearly impossible, DeLack said.
He said he is unaware of Freed asking for any special treatment or attempting to improperly influence anyone on the building department staff.
DeLack’s boss, Bothell Community Development Director Tom Burdett, said that under Bothell’s form of government, the City Council provides policy direction to the city manager. The city manager directs the staff and runs the city’s day-to-day operations.
City Council members don’t direct him or members of his staff, Burdett said. He noted that most of Element’s interactions with the city are through other company employees and not Freed.
Manuchehri and her attorney are now negotiating with Freed over what work will be corrected on her house. Her bathroom, gutted in May, is still unusable. New tile is stacked in the garage.
“People I’ve talked to in other neighborhoods, with problems in their new homes, the builder has stepped up, apologized profusely and fixed the problems immediately. That is not what we’ve experienced here,” she said.