Republished from August, 2015.
I Know Why the Commissioners Blinked
By Selinda Barkhuis, WSBA 24139, Clallam County Treasurer
OK, I think I know why they blinked. I don’t claim to have first-hand knowledge of what happened during the June 30 executive session that preceded the open business meeting where the County Commissioners unanimously decided to “rescind the grants” and “pull back” the $1 million warrant to the Port and the $285,952 warrant to the City that I had “referred to maker” two weeks earlier.
Now, prior to that meeting, the Commissioners had publicly encouraged “the city and the port to challenge the unpaid warrants in court,” while the Prosecutor had sent me a letter warning that my refusal to release the funds might expose me “to one or more theories of personal liability that could have far-reaching professional and financial ramifications.”
On the same day I received the Prosecutor’s letter, I received an email from James Casey from the Peninsula Daily News wanting my “reaction please” to the “possibility that in refusing to approve the warrants you’ve failed to fulfill your duties as an elected official… That’s a Class B felony upon conviction of which leads to removal from office and cancellation of your license to practice law.”
Yes, Clallam County’s Good Old Bully Club was out in full force! And their message was loud and clear: PAY UP OR ELSE…
But then that executive session, and the Commissioners unanimously pull the warrants.
So why did they blink?
Well, because during that executive session, I think, somebody must have explained to them the ramifications of RCW 36.40.130 if it turns out in court that I was right all along, and that the Commissioners had absolutely no good reason to rely on the Prosecutor’s legal opinion. Because that opinion, pardon the legalese, is nothing but a pile of crap.
Among other gems, that opinion is based on a “modification” scenario, sent around on June 9 by the County Administrator to other counties for feedback, that moves $100 between two $1,000 budget lines to accommodate an $1,100 tool bill. Yes, those other counties agreed, that is indeed an example of a “modification.”
But how would those other counties have responded had they been presented with the actual scenario that blows $3 million of otherwise committed funds on unanticipated no-strings-attached grants?
I believe that a court, like me, would find that no reasonable person would rely on an opinion that uses a $100 “modification” scenario to justify foregoing a public hearing for a $3 million “debatable emergency” expenditure, even if such an opinion was penned by the Prosecutor. Especially not when the record shows that these Commissioners had been beaten about the head with another opinion that accurately applies the law, penned by the County Treasurer who is also a lawyer.
What reason would these Commissioners give the court for so summarily dismissing the Treasurer’s opinion, and with it the taxpayers’ rights to public hearings, judicial review, and written contracts?
The price of doing wrong
Without the defense of plausible deniability, these Commissioners were all of a sudden presented with the possibility that it was themselves, rather than the Treasurer, they were exposing to “personal liability” by encouraging the Port and City to sue.
Because according to state law at RCW 36.40.130:
“Expenditures made, liabilities incurred, or warrants issued in excess of any of the detailed budget appropriations or as revised by transfer as in RCW 36.40.100 or 36.40.120 provided shall not be a liability of the county, but the official making or incurring such expenditure or issuing such warrant shall be liable therefor personally and upon his or her official bond. The county auditor shall issue no warrant and the county commissioners shall approve no claim for any expenditure in excess of the detailed budget appropriations or as revised under the provisions of RCW 36.40.100 through 36.40.130, except upon an order of a court of competent jurisdiction, or for emergencies as hereinafter provided.”
A court might very well decide that, since it was the Commissioners who so doggedly argued away the need for an RCW 36.40.140 “public hearing,” and since it was the Commissioners who “made” the $1.3 million in no-strings-attached “expenditures,” and since it was the Commissioners who “approved” the warrants that the Prosecutor “advised” out of the Auditor’s Office on their behalf, that then it should be the Commissioners who should be personally liable to the Port and the City for the $1.3 million in “liabilities” that they themselves so gratuitously “incurred.”
Threatening the obstinate Treasurer with personal liability is one thing. But faced with that threat themselves, the Commissioners wasted no time to “rescind the grants” and “pull back the warrants,” lest the Port and City might actually take them up on their offer to sue!
Last year, when I day-lighted the County Administrator’s attempt to bully me into making that unlawful and risky $8 million loan directly out of reserves to the City, I was treated to a “courtesy” Sheriff’s investigation, public lambasting on the front page of the Peninsula Daily News, and an attempt to cut my pay by 40%, all as orchestrated by Commissioner McEntire.
Time will tell what he has in store for me this time. And time will tell what he will do next in his goal to achieve unfettered access to the County Treasury.
In the meantime, I will continue to refuse to make myself “available” to “react” to the histrionics of these Commissioners and their bully club. Instead, I will continue to email my opinions when I feel the need. And if necessary, I will be ready, willing, and able to defend those opinions in court.
As a voter, the most important thing you can do to protect your rights to public hearings and written contracts, as well as transparency, accountability, and fiscal integrity in general, is to elect a District 1 County Commissioner who will respect such rights, rather than re-elect the one who has publicly dismissed them as mere burdens.