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‘Bereft of leadership,’ Stevens County can’t make budget decisions or dispense CARES Act aid

UPDATED: Thu., Sept. 3, 2020

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)

A legal and political stalemate in Stevens County has interrupted some functions of county government and held up hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal coronavirus assistance, including some destined for small businesses.

The problem stems from 1½ years of litigation between the county prosecutor and the county commissioners.

The prosecutor, Tim Rasmussen, argues the commissioners – Wes McCart, Steve Parker and Don Dashiell – no longer may hold office after a lawsuit found they misspent more than $130,000 from a public fund dedicated to fighting homelessness. That money went to a couple whose home was damaged by flooding and two nonprofits that built a transitional home for people with spinal cord injuries.

Rasmussen last week requested a restraining order to prevent the commissioners from performing any official duties, but the judge assigned to the case, Spokane County Superior Court Judge Maryann Moreno, is not expected to return to work until Sept. 14, and the next hearing in the case is scheduled for Sept. 25.

Until a judge clarifies whether McCart, Parker and Dashiell have valid claims to office, the matter will remain in dispute, leaving many county government decisions in limbo. Rasmussen has asserted the commissioners would be committing a gross misdemeanor if they continue showing up for work.

“Even though Prosecutor Rasmussen is wrong, the commissioners fear the threat of criminal prosecution and are therefore unable to perform their official duties. Stevens County is bereft of leadership and there is no indication that this will change before Sept. 25, 2020,” the commissioners’ attorneys wrote in a motion filed Monday. “Without a legislative authority, the county cannot pay its bills or conduct any business whatsoever.”

Rasmussen said there are concerns about the county’s ability to execute contracts, hire and fire employees, approve payrolls, resolve other lawsuits and dispense money from the Coronavirus, Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act that Congress passed in March.

Rasmussen said the county received about $2.4 million from the CARES Act and has worked with the Tri-County Economic Development District, or TEDD, to disburse that money in the form of grants to small businesses.

Rasmussen’s office has begun reviewing applications for more than $600,000 in grants, which the commissioners approved in two large batches. The prosecutor’s office approved the first batch on Wednesday.

The commissioners have the final say on the county’s spending. Wary of misspending public funds, however, they asked the prosecutor’s office to ensure all CARES Act payments are legally sound.

Rasmussen said his office can review and potentially approve the second batch of grant applications, but any other CARES Act expenditures will remain in limbo until new commissioners are appointed or elected.

“It’s a hangup that we really loathe because we would like to get that money out there to help people that need it,” Rasmussen said.

McCart blamed Rasmussen for the delays, saying it took the prosecutor’s office nearly six weeks to complete a contract with TEDD and begin reviewing applications.

“This has been more than a little frustrating for us commissioners,” McCart said in an email. “I am frustrated and sorry that the funds are not getting out to the businesses, but it has been the prosecutor that has delayed this process and is to blame.”

It’s also unclear how the county would respond if, for example, the area is threatened by wildfires in the coming weeks. Rasmussen said the commissioners approved an emergency plan but have not enacted it, and in their absence, it’s unclear who would have the authority to take emergency measures, such as expediting government contracts.

“This whole thing, it supplies more questions than it supplies answers,” Rasmussen said.

Severe challenges could arise if the county’s annual budget expires before there are commissioners seated to approve a new one. But for now, Rasmussen said, county departments can continue spending the money they have been allotted.

“The department heads run their departments,” he said. “As long as they have budgets and budgetary authority, they can continue.”

In a summary judgment order issued last month, Moreno ruled that McCart, Parker, Dashiell and the companies that provided their public official bonds are liable for $130,326 in misspent homelessness funds. 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.”

The Sept. 25 court hearing was scheduled to determine what, if anything, the commissioners owe in prejudgment interest and legal fees. Because of the outstanding claim for interest, the commissioners’ attorneys argue, Moreno’s order is not a “judgment” or a “final determination of the rights of the parties,” and so it does not trigger the statute vacating their offices.

“Without a judgment entered, Prosecutor Rasmussen is wrongfully threatening criminal prosecution and denying the commissioners the right to perform the duties they were elected to perform,” the attorneys wrote.

If the commissioners are forced out of office, the Stevens County Republican Party would nominate three people for each of the three commission seats. Gov. Jay Inslee would select two commissioners from those lists, and those two would select a third.

On Aug. 24, the same day he filed for a temporary restraining order, Rasmussen sent a letter to county employees saying “the process of appointment of new commissioners is in progress.”

Stevens County GOP Chairman Mitch Short, however, has repeatedly said the party needs more clarity to initiate that process. In a letter submitted in court by the commissioners’ attorneys, Short said, “Until I receive an official, written directive that the seats have been vacated, for example, either by a judge’s order or from the office of the governor, I am not going to start the selection process.”

Parker was on his way out of office before Moreno’s ruling, coming in third in a five-way primary behind Republican Greg Young and independent Malcolm Friedman. McCart, meanwhile, trounced his only primary challenger, Democrat Mike Bell, with nearly 72% of the vote. Dashiell is not on the ballot this year. His term was expected to last through 2022.

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.

“Prosecutor Rasmussen attempts to argue that the commissioners have violated the trust of the citizens of Stevens County and, accordingly, should be barred from performing their jobs,” the commissioners’ attorneys wrote. “If that were in fact the case, why haven’t the citizens of Stevens County filed a recall petition, and why did Commissioner McCart win 72% of the vote in the primary election?”

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