Wes McCart, Steve Parker and Don Dashiell, who are temporarily prohibited from serving as Stevens County commissioners, lost another crucial court decision on Friday and appear to have little chance of returning to elected office this year.
In response to the ruling, Mitch Short, chairman of the Stevens County Republican Party, said he was calling a meeting to begin the process of appointing new commissioners.
Other elected officials, meanwhile, were discussing how to form an interim legislative body to alleviate logjams in county spending, including the distribution of federal coronavirus aid to small businesses.
The convoluted 18-month legal battle started after the state auditor’s office found the commissioners misspent $121,000 from a county fund dedicated to fighting homelessness. The misspent money, later found to total more than $130,000, went 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.
With Friday’s ruling, Spokane County Superior Court Judge Maryann Moreno ordered McCart, Parker and Dashiell to pay 12% interest on each illegal expenditure from the homelessness fund.
The ruling could lay to rest a separate action by Stevens County Prosecutor Tim Rasmussen that seeks a judge’s order vacating the commissioners’ offices.
Rasmussen and his specially appointed deputy prosecutor, George Ahrend, have argued a ruling Moreno issued in August against the commissioners and their bonding companies triggered a state law causing their offices to become vacant.
The commissioners and their attorneys disputed that, saying it would take a “final” judgment of liability to trigger the statute. Friday’s hearing resolved all outstanding claims of liability for the misspent homelessness funds.
“The offices are vacant by operation of law because this judgment on the bond is a final judgment,” Rasmussen said in an email Friday. “The former commissioners should acknowledge that, and maybe now they will.”
Moreno has not ordered McCart, Parker and Dashiell to surrender their offices permanently, but on Sept. 16 she signaled she agrees with Rasmussen and issued a preliminary injunction that bars the trio from performing any official duties.
That order also prohibits them from collecting official wages and benefits, using county computers and email accounts, and entering nonpublic areas of county-owned buildings.
Dashiell, whose term was scheduled to last through 2022, conceded defeat in a phone call after Friday’s hearing, saying he anticipates someone else will be appointed to fill his seat.
McCart remains on the ballot for the November election after trouncing his only primary opponent, Democrat Mike Bell. In an email Friday, McCart said he and his attorneys were “still trying to figure things out” and declined to say whether they will continue fighting his ouster from office.
Even if he is deemed ineligible to serve the rest of his term, McCart may 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.
Parker was on his way out of office before the latest court rulings, coming in third in a five-way primary behind Republican Greg Young and independent Malcolm Friedman.
Short, the GOP chairman, said the party likely will convene on Oct. 10 and 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 appointment process could take weeks, leaving many items of county business in limbo. Short, Rasmussen and Dashiell confirmed there have been discussions about an interim legislative body that would make sure bills get paid in the absence of appointed or elected commissioners.
Rasmussen said such a panel can be assembled in emergencies under state law and would include seven of Stevens County’s elected officials, including him, the auditor, the clerk, the assessor, the treasurer, the sheriff and the coroner.
Rasmussen said it’s the first time a Washington county has had vacant board of commissioners since 1939, when a similar case of illegal spending resulted in the ouster of all three Whatcom County commissioners.
Before they were found liable for the misspent homelessness funds last month, McCart, Parker and Dashiell placed more than $130,000 in a revocable trust overseen by the county.
With Friday’s order, Moreno directed the county clerk to disburse that money into the homelessness fund.
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