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Stevens County commissioners ask prosecutor for immunity while clock ticks on government decisions

UPDATED: Tue., Sept. 8, 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)

Attorneys for the Stevens County commissioners have asked the county prosecutor for temporary immunity from gross misdemeanor charges while the parties dispute whether the commissioners can continue holding office.

In a letter sent Friday to George Ahrend, a private attorney working for Stevens County Prosecutor Tim Rasmussen, attorney Alison Turnbull requested immunity through Sept. 25, when a judge is expected to rule on the commissioners’ claims to office.

Turnbull wrote that “time is of the essence” as the commissioners are afraid to perform official duties under the threat of criminal prosecution, leaving important functions of county government in limbo and threatening “catastrophic harm to the people of Stevens County.”

Among other things, Turnbull said the legal stalemate has prevented action on a federal block grant, federal coronavirus assistance, union negotiations, department spending and county contracts with criminal defense lawyers and a psychiatrist.

“It is our understanding that neither the governor’s office nor the Stevens County Republican Party will be taking any action to fill the alleged (commission) vacancies until there is clarification from the court,” Turnbull wrote. “Meanwhile, Stevens County is deprived of leadership and unable to conduct business without the commissioners.”

The request for immunity comes more than two weeks after a judge ruled the commissioners – Wes McCart, Steve Parker and Don Dashiell – misspent more than $130,000 from a public fund dedicated to fighting homelessness. Rasmussen argues that ruling triggers a state law that effectively ousts the commissioners from office.

In an email Friday, Rasmussen said the commissioners had “fabricated” the threat of criminal charges. However, he has repeatedly cited another statute that says anyone who unlawfully refuses to surrender public office “shall be guilty of a gross misdemeanor.”

To expedite court proceedings, Turnbull also asked Rasmussen to agree to have a different judge consider his motion for a temporary restraining order against the commissioners.

Spokane County Superior Court Judge Maryann Moreno, who has presided over the Stevens County litigation for the past 18 months, is expected to return from vacation on Sept. 14, and the next hearing in the case is scheduled for Sept. 25.

Turnbull requested answers by noon Tuesday. Rasmussen said Friday he and Ahrend would consider the requests.

Turnbull’s letter included a list of examples of county functions that have been disrupted by the ongoing litigation.

For one, Turnbull said the county has received about $2.5 million from the Coronavirus, Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act that Congress passed in March, and it may be eligible to receive another $909,400 in CARES Act funding from the state Department of Commerce.

The county has been working with the Tri-County Economic Development District to disburse CARES Act money in the form of grants to small businesses. But Turnbull said businesses won’t receive that help unless the commissioners can approve the expenditures. The commissioners also would need to sign a contract amendment to get the additional money from the state, she wrote.

Turnbull said the county also has received a federal Community Development Block Grant that is supposed to help the Northeast Tri-County Health District cover the costs of its COVID-19 response. The grant was due to the health district on Thursday, but that too requires the commissioners’ approval, Turnbull wrote.

“The county has been granted a short extension due to the current circumstances, but this matter is pressing and must be addressed in a matter of days,” she wrote.

Turnbull said county departments risk overspending because the commissioners have not yet distributed nearly $1.5 million from the general fund, and the sheriff’s office is unable to purchase a special ambulance for patients with COVID-19 and other contagious diseases.

Then there are ongoing contract negotiations with the union representing public works employees.

A negotiation meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, but it “cannot proceed without the commissioners to act as the county legislative body,” Turnbull wrote. “In addition to the delays, this exposes the county to scrutiny and possible liability for not engaging in good-faith negotiations.”

The situation also could hinder the local court system and disadvantage criminal defendants.

“The commissioners must approve a contract amendment with two indigent defense lawyers or else run the risk of not having any Class A felony attorneys available,” Turnbull wrote.

Additionally, “after years of unsuccessful recruiting,” a psychiatrist has expressed interest in working at the county’s mental health evaluation and treatment facility, Turnbull wrote. The commissioners must sign a contract to hire that psychiatrist, she wrote.

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

Parker was on his way out of office before the last court 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 public official bond, which is a requirement of the office.

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