The Douglas County Commissioners committed gross misdemeanors and should be removed from office. The County Prosecutor may provide cover for them; here is what should be done.
Incompetent local government is not the exclusive specialty of Democrats; Republicans can also join the club if they also fail to remember they were originally elected as servants of the people. In Douglas County, Washington State a recent public records request exposed the fact that the County Commissioners (all Republicans) failed to file official capital asset reports with the County Auditor for half a decade. The penalty for this egregious incompetence (RCW 36.32.210) is a gross misdemeanor and a conviction will result in forced removal from their elected office. Any taxpayer of Douglas County can bring this cause of action against these elected officials.
For Whistleblowers, please go here to learn more.
I have been writing recently about Thurston County’s incompetence when it comes to tracking Capital Assets (stories here and here). Apparently, these inspired some local activists in Douglas County to file a records request on March 17 to discover how the local government in Douglas County manages their assets. These local citizens were shocked. It turns out, Douglas County doesn’t manage them very well either. In fact, they are even worse than Thurston County. Beating Thurston County for bad local governance takes a lot of practice and effort to get it this wrong.
There are only a handful of tasks which a county commissioner is absolutely obligated to perform. At a minimum these tasks include passing a budget, determining taxes, attending commissioner meetings, serving as the Board of Health, and managing the taxpayers’ assets (not that you could tell this from how the Municipal Research Service explains it here). Despite this, the Douglas County Commissioners still failed to get their job done. Not just for one year, but for the last half a decade. Neither they, nor the highly paid senior bureaucrats who work for them, noticed or cared.
The County Commissioners are responsible for the Capital Assets they manage, purchase, or sell, and ( RCW 36.32.210) they must file and sign an oath that the inventory reports are accurate. According to the statute, if the reports are wrong, incorrect or failed to be filed – the Commissioners are liable, from section 3:
“(3) Any county commissioner failing to file such statement or willfully making any false or incorrect statement therein or aiding or abetting in the making of any false or incorrect statement is guilty of a gross misdemeanor.”
To add to the criminal penalty, section 4 & 5 requires removal from office:
“(4) It is the duty of the prosecuting attorney of each county to within three days from the calling to his or her attention of any violation to institute proceedings against such offending official and in addition thereto to prosecute appropriate action to remove such commissioner from office.
(5) Any taxpayer of such county is hereby authorized to institute the action in conjunction with or independent of the action of the prosecuting attorney.”
Section 5, quoted above, is particularly instructive for the taxpayers of Douglas County because it is well-known, unfortunately, that many county prosecutors no longer see themselves as defenders of the citizens who elect them to office. Instead, the trend has been for county prosecutors to view themselves as defenders of the local elected officials, no matter how criminal they behave or what crimes they commit. Douglas County Prosecutor Steven Clem has held office since 1994. Will he perform his duty and challenge these commissioners?
Okay, the Douglas County Commissioners committed a gross misdemeanor and should be removed from office. If the County Prosecutor fails to perform his duty to begin removal proceedings, what should be done next?
Step 1 – Elections – you control your own destiny
The first step is to elect two new commissioners this year. Two of the incumbent Douglas County Commissioners are up for election this year. Incumbent Commissioner Ken Stanton from District 1 has been in office for 16 years now. In 2008, nobody even bothered to run against him. Douglas County Commissioner Dale Snyder from District 2 won in 2012 with a slim margin of 417 votes. At this time, one challenger, Kyle Steinberg has filed to run against incumbent Commissioner Snyder. It would probably be worthwhile to contact Mr. Steinberg and see if he understands the importance of inventory management and following the law. If you like his positions, he would certainly be better than the incumbent.
Related to this, the Douglas County Prosecutor has become fossilized after more than two decades collecting a paycheck from the citizens of Douglas County. He is up for election in 2018. He ran unopposed last time when he picked “no party” preference. This is further evidence that incompetence in government needs no political affiliation. The time to start recruiting a more honest replacement to run for this office should start now, and the campaign should start the day after you find the candidate – even if the campaign takes a year or more.
Step 2 – File formal notice with the Prosecutor
From a legal process standpoint, it is important to serve formal notice to the Douglas County Prosecutor that the Commissioners have violated RCW 36.32.210 and should be charged with a gross misdemeanor. Douglas County Prosecutor Clem may attempt to play out the clock, and throw up the classic defense that the Douglas County Commissioners didn’t “willfully” violate the law, but just didn’t do their job for half a decade. This is known as the “We are not crooks, just incompetent” defense. Nobody will argue against their claims of incompetence, but this is just a way to avoid responsibility. The prosecutor may fail to prosecute, of course, even if he pretends to consider it. However, no judge can claim you didn’t try to get him to do his job.
Step 3 – File Criminal Charges against the Douglas County Commissioners yourself
Usually, when the prosecutor fails to do his job, the citizens have few options to get the job done. However, the black letter law in this case is crystal clear – any Douglas County taxpayer can file charges “independent of the action of the prosecuting attorney.” Unless you happen to be very capable pro se, it would be best if you found a local attorney willing to take your case. It wouldn’t hurt to also charge the prosecutor with failure to do his duty at the same time – the judge might dismiss it, but you never know. No matter how hard the incumbent Douglas County Commissioners try to prove they are incompetent rather than criminal, the taxpayers of Douglas County will benefit by forcing their elected officials to take inventory stewardship and management seriously for a change. After all, it is your money they are mismanaging.
In the end, it is up to us to hold our elected officials accountable.
Step 4 – Don’t let the State Legislature water down this law
Like all rules and laws that hold elected officials or bureaucrats accountable, this law is under attack. In 2010, former Republican Representative Gary Alexander (who lived in Thurston County) was the sole sponsor to repeal this law. The bill he proposed is linked here. It was proposed and described as a minor “technical” fix. The bill passed the Washington State House with unanimous bipartisan support, lost in the mix of hundreds of far more controversial and interesting bills. I know that some of these legislators didn’t even know what this bill did.
Fortunately, for people who care about local accountability, the bill was killed in the Senate. As best I can tell, it looks like only citizen Arthur West stood up in the Senate hearing and testified against it – you can read his summarized con statement included here. Representative Alexander resigned from the legislature in 2013 after being appointed Thurston County Auditor, and losing the election that same year.
Nobody has proposed repealing this accountability law since. Hopefully, when the bureaucrats inevitably try again, we can stand up against them like citizen Arthur West. Sometimes it only takes one person to make a difference.
Study your local government. Don’t trust, and always verify. Look closely, dig deep, ask questions, and hold them accountable. Make them earn your trust, and when in doubt – it is probably best to throw them out.
Our Constitution begins with the phrase “we the people.” It was the founder’s intent that government be created by the people, to serve the people. It wasn’t their intention for the people to serve the government. It was always intended that government which failed to serve the people should be “altered or abolished.” Until we return to the founder’s intent, we remain We the Governed…
Direct Link to Dropbox file where most of these inventory related documents can be downloaded for you is linked here
*Update – local radio station covers this story – County recognizes they violated the law, and claim it was just minor clerical error here
Related articles for reference: