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Monday, October 19, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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With temporary restraining order, judge signals Stevens County commissioners ejected from office

UPDATED: Fri., Sept. 25, 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 judge has temporarily barred Wes McCart, Steve Parker and Don Dashiell from performing the duties of Stevens County commissioners, signaling they won’t be allowed to retain their elected offices when a final decision is made next week.

The injunction follows 18 months of litigation between the commissioners and Stevens County Prosecutor Tim Rasmussen, who sued them for misspending more than $130,000 in taxpayer funds earmarked for homelessness assistance.

Among other things, the order prohibits McCart, Parker and Dashiell from acting as commissioners, collecting official wages and benefits, using county computers and email accounts, and entering nonpublic areas of county-owned buildings.

“What has happened here shows that people can be held accountable for their conduct, no matter what position they have or who they are,” Rasmussen said in a phone call Thursday.

Rasmussen and his specially appointed deputy prosecutor, George Ahrend, have argued a previous ruling triggers a state law that automatically vacates the commissioners’ offices. That ruling, handed down last month, says McCart, Parker and Dashiell breached the conditions of their public official bonds when they dispensed the homelessness funds.

In her latest order Wednesday, Spokane County Superior Court Judge Maryann Moreno indicated she agrees with Rasmussen’s interpretation of the law, saying he “is likely to succeed on the merits in this action” at the next court hearing, scheduled for Sept. 25.

“There is a clear and present risk of harm to Stevens County if (McCart, Parker and Dashiell) remain in their offices and exercise the functions of their offices until the conclusion of this action,” Moreno’s order states.

Attorneys on both sides have expressed concern about logjams in county spending and other business that requires commissioners’ approval, including the distribution of small business grants from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act that Congress passed in March.

“Regular county business needs to be conducted going forward, including time-sensitive action on CARES Act funding,” Moreno’s order states. “If the defendants remain in office, their actions would potentially be subject to challenge on grounds that their offices had been vacated and they lack authority to act.”

McCart, who remains on the ballot for the November election, declined to comment Thursday, saying in an email he will wait until the outcome of the Sept. 25 hearing. McCart beat his only primary challenger, Democrat Mike Bell, with nearly 72% of the vote.

Even if he is deemed ineligible to serve the rest of his term, McCart might 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.

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. Rasmussen said Parker already has cleaned out his office.

Dashiell, whose term was scheduled to last through 2022, did not respond to messages seeking comment Thursday.

Between 2015 and 2018, McCart, Parker and Dashiell gave the homelessness funds to a couple whose home was damaged by flooding, and to two nonprofit organizations that built a transitional home for people with spinal cord injuries. In early 2019, shortly before Rasmussen filed suit, the state auditor’s office deemed $121,000 of those expenditures “unallowable gifts” of public funds.

Moreno issued the temporary restraining order Wednesday after returning from a two-week vacation, during which time the two sides feuded over the validity of the commissioners’ claims to office.

Last week, Ahrend roundly rejected a request to grant McCart, Parker and Dashiell temporary immunity from gross misdemeanor charges. Their attorneys made that request arguing the county needed a legislative body to carry out time-sensitive business before the Sept. 25 hearing.

If all three commissioners are forced out of office, 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.

The governor’s office and the local GOP have declined to start the appointment process until a judge confirms the commissioners’ ouster. Party Chairman Mitch Short said Thursday he will wait for the outcome of the Sept. 25 hearing.

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