Spokane County Commissioner Todd Mielke says his dating relationship with a District Court judge poses no conflict as commissioners prepare to fill a vacancy on the court.
Mielke and the court’s presiding judge, Debra Hayes, have been in what he describes as “a serious dating relationship” for about a year. Mielke said they’ve known each other since 1988.
“We haven’t been hiding it,” he said. “My life’s pretty much an open book. You don’t have to dig very deep to see it.”
He said he “would never make a decision on what personally benefits her,” but the appointment of another judge is not such an issue.
Mielke said his understanding of state law is that conflicts of interest must involve personal gain. Published research by the nonprofit Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington supports Mielke’s view.
The state’s appearance of fairness doctrine defines conflicts more broadly, but is limited to quasi-judicial actions, such as zoning hearings, in which public officials rule on people’s rights.
“There is no conflict,” Hayes said. “We are both elected officials in separate branches of government. I don’t tell him how to do his job as a commissioner and he doesn’t tell me how to do my job as a judge.”
Hayes said she told Mielke and Commission Chairman Al French that, given the nine finalists for the vacant position, “I have no doubt that you will pick someone who is competent and who we can work with.”
Aside from that, Mielke said, Hayes has told him only that selecting a new judge quickly is important because two other judges are expected soon to have prolonged absences.
Mielke quizzed one of the applicants, Rob Seimes, about whether he “burned his bridges” with harsh remarks when he was laid off as a District Court commissioner. But Mielke said his information came from involvement in unsuccessful negotiations to keep Spokane from ending its contract for District Court services.
Hayes said if she had concerns about any of the applicants, she wouldn’t tell the commissioners.
“It’s just not appropriate for me to be trying to influence this process,” she said. “I will work to make sure that we work with whoever comes out of that group.”
Anyway, Mielke and Hayes said, numerous evening meetings limit their time together and they prefer not to talk shop.
“We don’t live together,” Mielke said. “We live on opposite ends of town. Unlike a married couple, we don’t have the same amount of time to compare notes and small talk.”
He said Hayes joked that she can’t influence him because he didn’t vote for her when commissioners appointed Harvey Dunham to a District Court vacancy in 2005 – a year before Hayes unseated Dunham at the polls.
Neither Dunham nor Hayes was among five finalists recommended by a screening committee commissioners appointed.
Mielke said he voted against Dunham because he thought commissioners should have chosen from their committee’s list.