It was a day to remember in Thurston County politics.
On Tuesday morning, county commissioners moved to distance themselves from their earlier informal selection of Olympia Mayor Pro Tem Joe Hyer as the next county treasurer in the wake of his drug-related arrest.
They postponed the official interim appointment mandated by the state constitution and announced their intention to appoint an acting official using authority granted under state law when Thurston County Treasurer Robin Hunt said she planned to vacate the office March 1.
They didn’t withdraw Hyer’s name from consideration.
Hours after Hyer, 37, was charged with three felonies Tuesday afternoon, however, Hunt announced in a letter to the county commissioners that she was rescinding her resignation.
Her decision would appear to restart the process to appoint her successor and nullify some of the complex legal questions that have arisen since Hyer’s arrest at a time when he was in line to take over Hunt’s post on an interim basis.
Hunt wrote that she has spent 30 years serving citizens and she can best serve their interests in this “unique situation” by providing “time to develop a reasoned response and time for everyone who is interested in the appointment to have an opportunity to participate.”
“The citizens expect me to step to the plate, as I have in the past, to do what is right,” she wrote.
Hunt said in an interview that she is committed to start her new job March 1 and would attend to her duties as county treasurer in a remote fashion, with occasional visits in the office. In her letter, she wrote that she would donate back to the county’s general fund an amount from her paycheck that is commensurate with a work week of less than 40 hours.
In her resignation letter, Hunt had cited the state law authorizing county commissioners to appoint an acting official and recommended one of her managers, Steve Larson, for the job.
Hunt said in an interview that she made the recommendation based on the assumption commissioners would be able to make the constitutionally mandated appointment in an orderly and timely fashion.
She said that allowing that process to be carried out now wouldn’t work because of all the lingering questions.
“For the staff, that’s another layer of uncertainty which makes it hard to focus on what they’re supposed to be doing,” she said.
Asked when she intends to leave office, Hunt responded, “I’ll resign when it’s clear that there’s a path forward for everyone in the county.”
Commissioners had made their decision to appoint an acting official at their weekly agenda-setting meeting Tuesday morning after hearing from Prosecuting Attorney Ed Holm and senior deputy prosecuting attorney Elizabeth Petrich about the options available to them.
Thurston County Democratic Party officials had fulfilled their duty under the state constitution by forwarding the names of three nominees for appointment to succeed Hunt: Hyer; Noah Crocker, a state treasurer program manager; and Heather Highmiller, a precinct committee officer from Scott Lake.
State law gives commissioners the authority to appoint a deputy or assistant of a departed elected officer as an acting official “to perform all necessary duties to continue office operations.”
The state constitution gives commissioners 60 days from the time the vacancy occurs to make an appointment. Petrich noted that the state law provides a “window of time to let things settle out.”
“I think that’s our best option for ensuring the smooth running of the office,” Commissioner Cathy Wolfe said of appointing an acting official
Agreed commission Chairwoman Sandra Romero: “I don’t think we can rush headlong into anything.”
Hunt does not have a titled assistant or deputy in her office.
“I don’t think it has to be in their title,” Petrich advised, when one of the commissioners asked about this. “It’s more of their function.”
On the advice of his lawyer, Hyer has declined comment on his arrest. His lawyer, Ken Valz, said Hyer is innocent of the allegations. Hyer, co-owner of two downtown Olympia businesses, has taken a leave of absence from the City Council. Hyer’s arrest occurred two days after county commissioners tapped him to serve as interim county treasurer until the county canvassing board certifies the results of the general election Nov. 23. The decision was not legally binding but was intended to assist with the pending transition. Hyer planned to run for county treasurer for a four-year term starting in January.
The party’s executive committee issued a statement of qualified support Sunday.
The statement noted that only Hyer, the county commissioners or the courts can determine that the Olympia mayor pro tem is not qualified to hold office. In that event, the statement said, the party would be obligated to rescind its list of nominees and begin the process anew.
Holm said at the Tuesday morning meeting that he doesn’t know if there’s case law to support the party’s conclusion that it has the ability to reopen the process. Petrich added that those are legal questions for the party, not the county. Party chairman Jim Cooper did not return a phone message seeking comment on the latest developments.
Christian Hill: 360-754-5427