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Monday, December 9, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Editorial

Editorial: Stevens County Commissioners need to go

Any Stevens County Republicans who ever thought about running for local office ought to start talking to neighbors and preparing to launch a campaign. The county’s three commissioners deserve to be replaced as their terms expire, but that can only happen if they don’t run or credible challengers file.

For those who haven’t been following the goings-on in Stevens County that have landed the commissioners in court, here’s a quick recap. (Check out Spokesman-Review reporter Chad Sokol’s excellent coverage for a much more thorough telling.)

Commissioners Wes McCart, Steven Parker and Dan Dashiell used the county’s homeless housing and assistance funds for projects that had nothing to do with homelessness. Specifically, after a 2018 flood damaged a local home, the county spent $30,326 to cover the cost of moving the house to a new foundation because, according to commissioners, the owners didn’t have insurance. The county also spent $90,893 to help construct a transitional home for people with spinal cord injuries and their families.

That these expenditures took place is not in dispute. Whether they were legal is. The commissioners insist they were legitimate uses of the homeless assistance fund. The state auditor concluded otherwise in a politely damning report issued in February.

“Expenditures were made for activities not specified in the County’s homeless housing plan and are therefore considered an unallowable use of the restricted funds. As a result, these expenditures were a gift of public funds,” the auditor wrote.

County Prosecutor Tim Rasmussen found the expenditures to be so egregious that he filed lawsuits against the commissioners seeking to recoup the money for taxpayers. If the court sides with him, insurance could cover most of it, but the commissioners could wind up personally on the hook for a few thousand dollars each.

Things got even more complicated when commissioners recently used a daisy chain voting scheme to sidestep a court order denying them public attorneys. Each commissioner left the room for a few minutes while the other two voted to grant county funding for legal representation and any damages.

That gimmicky voting withstood a contempt charge from prosecutors, but it was certainly unseemly from a public body. It was musical chairs in order to avoid public accountability and scrutiny.

The judge also declined to issue a summary judgment, and the case will continue. Wherever the legal technicalities wind up, county residents have good reason to doubt their government is in good hands.

Maybe the problematic expenditures were honest mistakes by commissioners. Maybe they were manifestations of incompetence or even willful misspending for some reason. No matter what the truth is, they shouldn’t have occurred, and commissioners owed better to the county, especially to the homeless residents whom the funds should have helped.

Only egregious incidents of public graft justify holding elected officers personally responsible for their official actions. The commissioners might have broken the rules, but unless prosecutors show they did so with the intent to defraud the public and help some friends or allies, they don’t deserve personal legal culpability.

That’s not to say they deserve no punishment, though. That responsibility falls to Stevens County voters, who will get a chance to elect commissioners who won’t misspend more than $100,000 and obstinately deny wrongdoing.

That can only happen if credible candidates run against the incumbents – McCart and Parker in 2020 and Dashiell in 2022.

We noted at the start a need for Republican candidates because of the political reality in Stevens County. It’s conservative country. Donald Trump won 67% of the vote there in 2016 compared with Hillary Clinton’s 25%. The three Republicans who now sit on the commission rarely have faced serious challengers on the ballot. The odds of Democrats sweeping into power, even given the current scandal, are vanishingly low. It falls to Republicans – and maybe third-party (Libertarian?) or independent conservatives – to hold the incumbents accountable.

Or maybe McCart, Parker and Dashiell will just stand down, retire having overstayed their welcome in elected office. That might be the best solution, allowing voters to choose new leaders over the next two election cycles.

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