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Appellate judges: Stevens County commissioners shouldn’t have been removed from office in 2020

UPDATED: Thu., March 31, 2022

Stevens County District Court is seen on Friday, Jan. 11, 2019, in Colville.  (TYLER TJOMSLAND/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Stevens County District Court is seen on Friday, Jan. 11, 2019, in Colville. (TYLER TJOMSLAND/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Three Stevens County commissioners were improperly removed from office in a 2020 dispute over how they spent public homelessness assistance funds, Washington appellate judges ruled Thursday.

The 14-page ruling found that Commissioners West McCart, Don Dashiell and Steve Parker were acting as a legislative body and not individually liable for a decision to award $121,000 of public homeless funds to a couple whose home was damaged by flooding and two nonprofit organizations that built a transitional home for people with spinal cord injuries.

The attorney for the commissioners, Julie Watts, applauded the ruling, saying it upheld the legislative authority of her clients.

“Division III’s insightful opinion rightly vindicated my clients and rejected the Superior Court’s decision, which was not only profoundly unjust but dangerous to the foundations of democracy,” Watts said in a statement. “I couldn’t be more delighted.”

The Washington State Auditor ruled in 2019 that those payments were “an unallowable gift of public funds,” prompting a lawsuit from Stevens County Prosecutor Tim Rasmussen alleging the lawmakers had each violated the bonds for their offices, bonds that required the officials to “faithfully perform the duties of his or her office and account for and pay over all money which may come into his or her hands by virtue of his or her office.”

A ruling in his favor by Spokane Superior Court Judge Maryann Moreno effectively removed the men from office. Dashiell had been reelected in November 2018 after Rasmussen initially raised questions about the payments approved at a public meeting that August. McCart won reelection in November 2020 after his removal and an interim board served for three months that year. Parker finished third in a top-two primary that year.

In its ruling, the three Washington appellate judges unanimously rejected that argument.

Writing for the majority, Judge Jessica Pennell wrote that there are remedies in instances where lawmakers are found to have made a legislative decision that runs counter to the law, including a civil lawsuit to recover the money or a recall of elected officials.

The ruling means “future commissioners can be assured they will not be removed from office and subject to financial liability simply because a court disagrees with the legality of their legislative determinations,” Pennell wrote.

Rasmussen said he intended to seek an appeal before the state’s highest court.

“I’ve been fairly certain all along that we would end up in the Supreme Court,” he said, noting that he believed the ousted commissioners would have appealed if the court had ruled the other way. He also said it was “interesting” that the companies that had provided the bonds for McCart, Dashiell and Parker had not joined in the appeal. U.S. Fire Insurance Co. provided the bond for Dashiell, and Travelers Insurance paid the bonds for McCart and Parker.

The judge’s decision rewards costs and attorney fees totaling more than $130,000 back to the three former commissioners.

“Our disposition cannot remedy the fact that the three commissioners were improperly removed from office, but they can at least receive financial relief,” Pennell wrote.

McCart and Commissioner Greg Young were elected to four-year terms that will end in 2024. Commissioner Mark Burrows was appointed to the seat by Gov. Jay Inslee and would have to win election this November to retain his seat on the board.

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