An Olympia activist wants to oust three Thurston County commissioners, saying they violated state law.
Arthur West alleges that the commissioners should be recalled for providing funding to three associations that represent the interests of Washington counties and their officers.
A visiting judge will determine during a court hearing next week whether the charges leveled by West warrant a recall petition.
The judge also will determine whether the ballot synopsis of the charges prepared by the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office is adequate.
“In these tough economic times, counties are spending a great deal of public money on private organizations that do not represent the interests of the citizens, and there’s no accountability,” West said.
Commissioner Karen Valenzuela said she was not “hugely concerned” by West’s actions. She said Thurston County pays membership dues to the organizations and doesn’t ask for an accounting of how the dues are spent.
“We trust and assume they’re following the law,” she said.
The function of two of the associations, based in Olympia and controlled by elected and appointed county officials, is statewide coordination of county administrative programs.
Members of the Washington State Association of Counties are county commissioners, council members and executives. Members of the Washington Association of County Officials are independently elected county officials who don’t serve as judges, including auditors, coroners and sheriffs.
State law says county commissioners can reimburse associations from county operating funds for services the associations provide.
This year, the county paid WACO $31,332 and WSAC $39,132 in membership dues, County Manager Don Krupp said. The associations use a formula based on the population of each member county to determine the dues paid each year.
West alleges that the county commissioners authorized payments to the associations, although the vouchers didn’t provide descriptions of the work performed and weren’t supported by affidavits as required under state law.
West alleges that commissioners Sandra Romero and Cathy Wolfe approved these payments in 2008 and 2009, although Romero didn’t take office until January. He alleges that Valenzuela approved the payments since she began working as a commissioner in February, after her appointment by the governor.
West also names the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys in his charges.
He alleges that the commissioners authorized payments to WACO that were transferred to WAPA, although there’s no provision for this pass-through funding under state law.
West cites a decision in a case won by former Port of Olympia commissioner Paul Telford against the county commissioners in the late 1990s to support his case. The decision reiterated that the law says payments to the WACO and WSAC must be made after the work is performed. It further notes that allowing “counties to allocate a block of public funds to be spent entirely at the discretion of the associations as if the funds were private violates the clear intent of the statutes.”
West, in attempting to reinforce his recall charges against the county commissioners, cites a case involving Telford, a public official he tried to recall.
In May, the state Supreme Court ruled that West’s charges against Telford and Port of Olympia commissioner Bill McGregor were insufficient. It upheld a decision by Thurston County Superior Court Judge William McPhee. West had claimed the two commissioners approved spending public money for the Weyerhaeuser log-export yard without a comprehensive plan for harbor improvements required under state law.
In the case West cited, Telford, prior to being elected port commissioner, sued county commissioners and the two associations and prevailed in his efforts to prevent their use of public funds in political campaigns. A state appeals court upheld a judge’s ruling that the associations are quasi-public agencies subject to the Public Disclosure Act, which prohibits the contribution of public funds to political campaigns and lobbying efforts.
The associations maintained they were private corporate entities.
Christian Hill: 350-754-5427