Childish Political Leadership in Thurston County is Costing Taxpayers Millions

(This article was originally published on the Freedom Foundation blog on August 18, 2014, written by Glen Morgan, while he was the Property Rights Director at the Freedom Foundation.  The original article posting was deleted by the Freedom Foundation in 2017.  It has been reposted here exactly as it was originally written. Some links no longer work and have been removed and some original images are no longer included in the article)

August 18, 2014

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Glen Morgan, Property Rights Director, Freedom Foundation

The most terrifying aspect of reading the depositions of the Thurston County commissioners and senior bureaucrats in the recent lawsuit brought against Thurston County by Maytown Sand and Gravel and the Port of Tacoma is the realization that there are no adults in charge of Thurston County.

To review, Thurston County had issued a 20 year Conditional Use Permit to mine gravel at the Maytown property site in south Thurston County. The Thurston County Commissioners tried to put new conditions on this permit and actively colluded with environmental extremists to stop the permitted mining. The Thurston County Commissioners were successful in costing both the Port of Tacoma and Maytown Sound and Gravel a lot of money. The Thurston County Commissioners were sued by Maytown Sand and Gravel and the Port of Tacoma. A jury found the Thurston County Commissioners guilty and awarded $12 million to the plaintiffs.

The $12 million jury judgment against Thurston County has been reported in various local media, but the news reports have significantly understated the damage of this award to the residents of Thurston County. First, it does appear to be the largest land-use jury verdict ever won in Washington State history. Second, it’s clear from these depositions that this was an easily avoided lawsuit had just one responsible adult been in charge somewhere in Thurston County government. 

Finally, this was a jury trial, and the jury was operating under the jury instructions (linked below) provided by Thurston County, and they still found the Thurston County commissioners guilty on every count. Despite this whiny editorial by The Olympian, attempting to protect the Thurston County Commissioners from themselves, the jury saw the plain truth and the Thurston County Commissioners are guilty.

Let’s review the charges of which they were found guilty. These included negligence, negligent misrepresentation, tortious interference with a business expectancy and, worst of all, violation of constitutional right to substantive due process. According to one of the attorney’s involved in this case, “the evidence at trial was so damning against the County and the Commissioners that the jury determined it ‘shocked the conscience.'”

An appeal is unlikely to change this result and will only cost the taxpayers more money. Unfortunately, for everyone, adults are in short supply in Thurston County government, so like unsupervised children in a candy store, ridiculous decisions, unintelligent moves and chaos unfolds.

This is just another example.

Got Insurance?

Thurston County Manager Cliff Moore proudly states that Thurston County has insurance for these types of things, which is partly true. However, it’s more accurate to explain that the maximum insurance coverage in Thurston County for these types of judgments is $10 million. The additional $2 million will come directly out of the Thurston County budget.

This is the same Thurston County budget where expenses currently exceed revenues. Expect more than just the lowest-paid janitors to be laid off in the near future.

Tax Payer Dollars are Certainly Wasted in Thurston County

Tax Payer Dollars are Certainly Wasted in Thurston County

Thurston County belongs to a risk-management pool that includes other counties that all pay into this pot to spread the risk around. This is a logical arrangement, and not uncommon in both the private and public sector. However, largely as a result of this judgment, and the complete lack of controls and decent leadership in Thurston County it has exposed, it is likely that Thurston County will be expelled from the insurance pool.

Who can blame them? Thurston County just pointlessly squandered $10 million from the insurance pool because the county commissioners and upper management violated a wide array of laws, ignored legal counsel, lied about their violations, and appear to be as ignorant as a child about fundamental aspects of their jobs.

Don’t believe me? Read the depositions, which I have linked at the end of this article, for yourself. 

Unfortunately, it is likely to cost the taxpayers of Thurston County more than just the $2 million judgment not covered by insurance. When government entities like Thurston County are found guilty of violating the constitutional rights of its residents, as Thurston County was in this case, they typically are required to also pay the attorney’s fees. 
In this case, these could be north of $2 million as well.

So, in summary, because the Thurston County commissioners and the senior level bureaucrats were willing and eager to violate the law, pick and choose winners, pretend the law doesn’t exist, lie under oath and have very obvious ex partecommunications with one special interest, the residents of Thurston County will suffer. 

This is a significant budget hit. It might not cost as much as a $61 million jail sitting empty for four years, but the mistakes keep adding up.

The Thurston County Jail – still empty 4 years later
The Thurston County Jail – still empty 4 years later

Just how bad is leadership in Thurston County government?

This is a question that may have no real answer. At one time, it appeared the Thurston County commissioners were just mildly incompetent and clearly willing to inflict harm on some of their constituents to pacify one special interest. Frighteningly, these depositions, given under oath by elected officials, provide a window into the day-to-day operations of Thurston County that is, at best, breathtakingly incompetent and reveals there are no adults running the show.

At worst, their leadership is capricious, arbitrary, knowingly unlawful and randomly reckless.

At the end of this article, I provide direct sources and some quotes from the depositions that help illustrate and support the assertions in this article. However, as just one sample, here is an interchange between Commissioner Karen Valenzuela and the attorney for Maytown Sand and Gravel on Nov. 7, 2012, p.162.

Thurston County Commissioner Valenzuela
Thurston County Commissioner Karen Valenzuela

Attorney: Do you accept that this common law Appearance of Fairness Doctrine applies to you?

Valenzuela: I don’t go by it.

Attorney: Why?

Valenzuela: I go by page 2

Attorney: Well, did somebody tell you you could ignore page 1?

Valenzuela: I’ve argued with my attorneys about that. I go by page 2.

(Objection, as Jeff Fancher, attorney for Thurston County, attempts to save a sinking ship. He is obviously struggling throughout this deposition to try to save Thurston County from the incompetence of its political leadership)

Attorney: You can answer

Valenzuela: I go by page 2

Attorney: Why do you go by page 2?

Valenzuela: It’s the more compelling case to me.

Attorney: You ignore the common law Appearance of Fairness Doctrine as a commissioner and think that’s OK?

Attorney: Are you going to actually argue in front of the jury that you’re not bound by common law?

Valenzula: I’m going to argue which part of law I go by.

Attorney: Do you have advice of counsel that has told you this is OK?

Valenzula: No.

Everyone Recognizes the Thurston County Commissioners are making a mess

Everyone Recognizes the Thurston County Commissioners are making a mess

This is not a unique part of the deposition, but it helps illustrate why Thurston County lost this lawsuit, and it demonstrates how the residents of Thurston County are going to pay for the incompetence, lawlessness and arrogance of our elected officials.  This short interchange illustrates a fundamental problem with the Thurston County commissioners. 
First, they pick and choose what laws they want to follow – and willfully violate the ones they don’t like. Second, they completely ignore the advice of attorneys the taxpayers are paying to advise them.

Small wonder the Insurance Risk Pool wants to drop Thurston County. 

Lots of experience, but no clue how to do their jobs

In the beginning of each deposition by the Thurston County commissioners, they go through their long resumes and experience in public office. On average, each commissioner had about 30 years of experience in government – in either an elected capacity or as legislative staff in the capital.

Valenzuela, in addition to being on the Tumwater City Council, had also worked as staff in both the state Senate and House. Commissioners Sandra Romero and Cathy Wolfe were elected legislators for many years, and Romero had also served on the Olympia City Council as well as a school board. 

Commissioner Romero on stage with JZ Knight
Commissioner Sandra Romero on stage with JZ Knight

Despite nearly a century of collective elected, legislative and other government experience, none of these people knew their job. They also had no clue about the law and were terrifyingly ignorant about almost everything else.
Wolfe made it clear that she didn’t check her emails, didn’t meet or talk to constituents, avoided all contact with the residents except where absolutely required, and apparently did little other than show up at required commissioner meetings.

Her staff did everything for her. As troubling as this might be, at least Wolfe didn’t blatantly lie, have ex parte communications with special interests in an effort to hurt less-preferred residents of Thurston County or claim she just decided which laws she would follow based on her own random desires. She just collects a paycheck and avoids doing anything beyond the bare minimum.  

Romero and, most egregiously, Valenzuela were obviously caught lying in the depositions about how well they knew some of the anti-mine activists, how much they helped the activists organize and how they purposefully manipulated the process to fit their agendas.

Most serious observers of this collection of bunglers know they’re not the brightest bunch. There’s no law against this, and no intelligence test required to hold political office or run government.

Still, there has always been a sense that senior staff could hold their worst impulses in check and protect the voters from their incompetence. With County Manager Don Krupp’s testimony on the record now, this was not the case.

Krupp had decades of experience, too, but while he was trying to cover for the elected officials it appears he had no problem helping them manipulate the process, violate the law and abuse un-favored residents of Thurston County.

Former Thurston County Manager Don Krupp
former Thurston County Manager Don Krupp

Krupp saw the writing on the wall and had the good sense to flee Thurston County for Clackamus County, Ore., before the results of this lawsuit could become final and public. We can only pray the residents there fare better than those he left behind.

The only inexperienced person in this deposition collection appeared to be Resource Stewardship Director Cliff Moore, who was hired in 2009 with no relevant experience to justify his hiring.

His educational experience working for WSU was completely irrelevant, and it wasn’t surprising that in the deposition he didn’t even know about the Land-Use Petition Act– which has been a large part of his work over the past five years. 

Current Thurston County Manager Cliff Moore
Thurston County Manager Cliff Moore

Perhaps this ignorance and enabling of this legal fiasco is why the Thurston County commissioners gave him a pay raise and promoted him to be in charge of Thurston County after Krupp fled the scene of the crime.

None of these elected officials or upper management deposed for this lawsuit did the residents of Thurston County any favors. In addition to ensuring Thurston County has become legendary for building a $61 million jail that still sits empty four years later, they have been instrumental in chasing tax-paying jobs out of the county (like Ritchie Brothersthe Housing Mart, and others).

This management team is known for harassing residents using the pocket gopher excuse or inventing ordinances like the agritourism ordinance that picks winners and losers.

They have shown political favoritism to JZ Knight, who channels a 35,000-year-old Lemurian warrior named Ramtha and who has donated money to their political campaigns in an effort to get special treatment. At the same time, they have directed staff to harass local residents like Jon Petit, Bert WalschDonna Baker and Misti Chastain – frequently for fictional or flimsy justifications at best.

Now, this crack team of experienced leaders has blundered into another mess and burdened the residents of Thurston County with the largest land-use violation judgment in state history.

Instead of sidestepping an easily avoidable problem, this crew enthusiastically escalated it into a disaster on their own. There is nobody else to blame.

We all suffer at the hands of our elected officials

In conclusion, the biggest problem this illustrates is not the obvious incompetence, embarrassing behavior or total ignorance of political leadership in Thurston County. The biggest problem is that the residents will suffer directly as a result of these poor decisions.

When Jon Tunheim, the Thurston County prosecutor, testified at the most recent budget hearing in Thurston County and asked the commissioners which pedophiles, rapists and DUIs he should not prosecute and release to harm more residents in Thurston County as a direct result of the budget cuts by this board, he was not speaking metaphorically (the Commissioners ignored him).

The brutal truth is that these elected officials have squandered the financial future of this county in needless and pointless actions that directly reduce the safety and quality of life for every resident of Thurston County.

While recently promoted County Manager Cliff Moore and other upper management may get hefty pay raises, it is certain the budgets of the sheriff and prosecutor’s offices will be cut even deeper. These cuts will directly result in lower response time to 911 calls and fewer dangerous criminals being prosecuted.

This will not occur because of a reduction in taxes collected by Thurston County. The taxes collected have generally increased over time. These cutbacks will occur because this commission squanders the tax dollars taken from the residents of Thurston County, and they don’t appear to care about the consequences.

If this political leadership and the management of Thurston County were so casually willing to violate the law abusing a significant business like Maytown Sand and Gravel and the Port of Tacoma, who can doubt that they have the same cavalier attitude towards other residents of Thurston County who can’t afford millions of dollars in attorney’s fees? 
How many times have they done this before? Who can doubt that this leadership has been just as biased, hostile and willing to lie to harm others in our community?

How much liability has this crew exposed our county to in future litigation?

Where are the adults in Thurston County? They certainly are not running the show right now.

The Commissioners Can Dig Holes for Thurston County
The Commissioners can dig holes for Thurston County

Two more illuminating excerpts from depositions in $12 million judgment against Thurston County in Lewis County Superior Court, Maytown Sand and Gravel v Thurston County:

Cliff Moore Deposition – March 6, 2013, p.32

(After a series of questions about whether he instructed one of his employees – Mike Kain – to say and do things against his better judgment):

Cliff Moore: I’m not going to answer that question. That’s a silly question, and you know it.

Attorney: Actually, it’s not a silly question at all. If you’re sitting in front of the jury and one of the witnesses is saying something that’s completely different than what you’re saying, someone’s lying according to the jury.

(The jury decided Cliff Moore was the one lying in this case)

Karen Valenzuela deposition – Nov. 7, 2012, page 11

Attorney: And you know that the damage claim could be as high as $30 million in this lawsuit?

Valenzuela: I did not know that.

Attorney: Is this the first time you’ve heard this?

Valenzuela: I… I … No, it is not.

Attorney:  So you do know that the damage claim, as alleged, could be as high as $30 million?

Valenzuela: Having heard it and knowing it are completely different things to me.

Attorney: What’s the distinction?

Valenzuela: I think people can say a lot of things. It doesn’t make them true.

Attorney: I didn’t ask if you believed it. I asked if you know that’s what’s being claimed in this lawsuit.

Valenzuela: I have heard that.

Attorney: OK. The county has $10 million in insurance for this claim. Is that correct?

Valenzuela: I wouldn’t know.

Attorney: You haven’t looked at the insurance policy?

Valenzuela: No.

Attorney: No one’s talked to you about what insurance is available?

Valenzuela: No.

… p.12

Attorney: Are you aware that if the county loses this case, then the taxpayers of Thurston County are on the hook for the amount of the judgment, less whatever insurance there is?

Valenzuela: Haven’t thought about that, no.

Attorney: Never crossed your mind?

Valenzuela: No.

Attorney: These constituents… these taxpayers are your constituents, aren’t they? Thurston County?

Valenzuela: Again, haven’t thought about this.  

The Thurston County commissioners don’t think much about their constituents when they are making their decisions, and you only have to read their depositions to be certain of this fact.

Original Court Documents:

  • Jury Instructions
  • Amended Complaint
  • Valenzuela Deposition
  • Romero Deposition
  • Wolfe Deposition
  • Krupp Deposition
  • Moore Deposition

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