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Stevens County commissioner candidates wonder how lawsuit might influence November election

Aug. 23, 2020 Updated Tue., Aug. 25, 2020 at 2:17 p.m.

The Stevens County Courthouse in Colville is seen in January 2019.  (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
The Stevens County Courthouse in Colville is seen in January 2019. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Two candidates for Stevens County’s governing board have criticized the current county commissioners, who were found in a civil lawsuit to have misspent $130,000 from a public fund dedicated to fighting homelessness.

The candidates also expressed uncertainty about the path to the November general election, only 10 weeks away. While the county prosecutor asserts that all three commissioners have been legally ejected from office after a judge’s ruling, county and state officials are mulling whether the local Republican Party and the governor must start a process to appoint short-term replacements.

“It’s really kind of surreal to me, to be watching this from the sidelines,” said Malcolm Friedman, a former Stevens County commissioner who hopes to regain a seat on the board in November. “If it was the middle of March or something, it would be a completely different scenario. But when you’ve got people that are actually on the ballot at the time this happens, that’s what makes it really, really … I guess the word is ‘interesting.’ ”

Friedman, who used to run grocery stores and a restaurant in Colville, described himself as a moderate Republican but said he’s running as an independent because he’s weary of the current polarized political climate. He served as a commissioner from 2000 to 2012.

Friedman and Republican Greg Young, a jail sergeant with the Stevens County Sheriff’s Office, beat incumbent Commissioner Steve Parker in the August primary. Young said Saturday he was out of town and couldn’t immediately discuss the race or the lawsuit against the commissioners.

Friedman criticized the commissioners’ decision to grant $30,000 to a couple whose home was damaged by flooding and $100,000 to two nonprofit organizations that built a transitional home for people with spinal cord injuries. The state auditor’s office deemed those expenditures improper in early 2019, and a Spokane County Superior Court judge recently deemed them illegal in a lawsuit brought by Tim Rasmussen, the Stevens County prosecutor.

“It was inappropriate,” Friedman said of the commissioners’ spending. “At the very least, it was an error in judgment. It remains to be seen whether it was beyond that, but I have no reason to believe it was.”

The summary judgment order issued last week by Judge Maryann Moreno says the commissioners and the companies that provided their public official bonds are liable for $130,326 in misspent homelessness funds, even though the commissioners said they reimbursed the county for that full amount in July.

Public official bonds are a type of insurance policy that pays governments up to a fixed amount when an official fails to “faithfully perform” his or her duties.

According to Rasmussen, the ruling triggers a section of state law that says, “Every elective office shall become vacant … whenever a judgment shall be obtained against that incumbent for breach of the condition of his or her official bond.” He asserted the commissioners would be committing a gross misdemeanor if they continue showing up for work.

In a letter Friday, the commissioners’ attorney, Alison Turnbull, disagreed and said Rasmussen has been pursuing a “personal vendetta” against the commissioners in hopes of removing them from office. She said the commissioners “in good faith believed” the disputed expenditures were “valid uses” of the homelessness fund.

As of Saturday afternoon, the commissioners had not responded publicly to the judge’s ruling or Rasmussen’s assertion that they are ejected from office, except to provide a copy of Turnbull’s letter.

Parker and Commissioner Wes McCart were first elected in 2012, and their terms were expected to end on Dec. 31. Commissioner Don Dashiell, who was first elected in 2010, is not on the ballot this year. His term was expected to last through 2022.

If the ruling forces the commissioners to leave office, it would mark the first time elected officials in Washington have been deemed ineligible to serve under that statute since 1939, when Whatcom County commissioners were ousted for illegally selling two county-owned rock crushers to a private citizen. The Washington Supreme Court upheld that decision in 1940, saying the commissioners’ ouster should take effect immediately, regardless of any pending legal appeal.

The process for filling county commission vacancies before an election is outlined in Washington statute and the state constitution.

Under usual circumstances with only one vacancy, the outgoing commissioner’s political party would create a list of three potential appointees, and the sitting commissioners would choose a new colleague from that list. If the sitting commissioners couldn’t agree on a selection within 60 days, it would be up to the governor to choose from that list.

Since Parker, McCart and Dashiell are all Republicans, Rasmussen said the Stevens County Republican Party would create a list of three potential appointees for each of the county commissioner districts. From those lists, Gov. Jay Inslee would select two commissioners, and those two would select a third, Rasmussen said.

Stevens County GOP Chairman Mitch Short said Friday the party would have to seek clarification before moving forward with any appointment process.

“Until it’s sorted out and someone with authority can give us an answer, there’s really not much we can do,” Short said.

Friedman said if the commissioners are forced out, the list of potential appointees should not include anyone on the November ballot because incumbents typically have an edge in elections.

“My opinion is that they should not be anyone who’s currently in the race, because I don’t think that’s fair to the other person that’s in the race as that didn’t get picked,” Friedman said. “It’s only temporary, and it might be considered giving them an unfair advantage.”

While Parker lost in the primary, McCart trounced his only challenger, Democrat Mike Bell, with nearly 72% of the vote. Even if he is deemed ineligible to serve the rest of his term, McCart may be able to return as a commissioner in January if he wins the general election. He could face difficulty securing another bond, which is a requirement of the office.

Bell, a retired accountant who worked with small health clinics and hospitals in Washington, previously ran against Republican state Rep. Joel Kretz in 2018.

Bell said he has “great respect” for Rasmussen and described the county commissioners as “incompetent” and “lawless,” adding their tenure in office should be subject to an ethics review.

“Based on the initial actions of the county commissioners, their lack of remorse (and) their willingness to repeatedly request that the taxpayers foot the bill for their misbehavior, I have no confidence in their judgment and assume that further illegal actions will be discovered by their replacement appointees,” Bell said in a statement.

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