MONTESANO — Gov. Jay Inslee is staying on the sidelines in the fight over the appointment process for the vacant Grays Harbor prosecutor’s position.
There had always been a question if the governor’s office would be mandated to get involved if the prosecutor’s position was still vacant 60 days after Prosecutor Stew Menefee resigned and the office was still empty.
The fight over the office has gotten messy, with legal opinions batted from all over the place and since the office naturally involves attorneys, there’s fear of lawsuits that could come at anytime for just about any reason.
Prosecutor appointee Vini Samuel, a family law attorney from Montesano, declined the prosecutor appointment in a Nov. 27 letter to the commissioners.
Because of a provision of the state’s constitution, because Menefee was a Democrat, the elected Grays Harbor Democratic Precinct Committee Officers had to meet and choose a list of three Democrats to potentially fill Menefee’s seat. It would then be up to the commissioners to pick a name off the list.
The whole controversy started when the Democrats stacked the list for their favorite candidate and aced off the list Mike Spencer, a prominent former judge and a one-time Democratic prosecutor. The list contained the names of Deputy Prosecutor Katie Svoboda, the favorite of the party, and two attorneys who never really wanted the job — George Smylie and Samuel. The commissioners chose Samuel.
Now, that Samuel has declined the position, Gordon says it’s time for a new list.
Gordon has set a deadline of Dec. 18 for the Grays Harbor Democrats to meet and supply a list of new, potential prosecutor candidates for the commissioners to consider to fill the vacant prosecutor’s position.
Gordon says he’s hoping the new list will contain only those not interested in seeking the position in next year’s General Election, aimed squarely at asking the Democrats to kick Svoboda off the list as well as Spencer, who didn’t make the list but is interested in the office.
Gordon says that if the Democrats do not supply a list of candidates at that point, the commissioners will then solicit their own potential nominees for the post and fill it themselves. The commissioners as a whole did not vote on the move Monday afternoon. It was announced solely by Gordon.
Several of the Democrats say that the commissioners must pick someone else from the existing list before asking for a new one. There’s also the question if the clock has run out for the commissioners to fill the prosecutor’s vacancy and if the whole matter is actually up to Gov. Inslee to decide on now. Menefee retired on Sept. 30, putting the 60-day clock expiration on Nov. 29 — if that’s even the case.
Gordon affirmed that the county commissioners do have the right to seek a new list of three and that Inslee shouldn’t be able to appoint anyone at this point because he says the 60-day clock re-started when Samuel declined her post.
Jaime Smith, a spokeswoman for the Governor’s Office, said that staff “are continuing to review this situation, but do not plan to intervene in this matter at this stage.”
One big question at this point is who are the commissioners getting legal advice from?
Gordon says he’s on-purpose not been soliciting legal advice from the county’s Prosecutor’s Office or the longtime civil attorney, Deputy Prosecutor Jim Baker, who typically advises the commissioners. Gordon says that Baker is “between a rock and a hard place” and he doesn’t want to make him choose sides.
Instead, Gordon says he’s been relying on legal advice “from those higher up,” declining to name names, “and those associated with the Governor’s Office.”
Smith said that no one from the Governor’s Office is giving any of the commissioners legal advice.
Gordon said that he’s been asked not to identify the specific people giving him advice. The commissioners do not currently have an independent legal counsel separate from the Prosecutor’s Office to get legal advice.
It’s one thing for the commissioners to ask for a new set of names, which is already treading some murky legal waters with differing opinions on whether that’s even possible. It would be quite another set of legal circumstances if the commissioners completely bypass the organized Democrats altogether because retired Prosecutor Stew Menefee is a Democrat.
“I’m not sure if they can do that,” said Patrick Wadsworth, secretary for the Grays Harbor Democrats, who attended Monday afternoon’s commission meeting.
Gordon again declined to say who he’s getting legal advice from.
“What we would like from the Democratic Party is a list of three names, good Democrats that would like to take the office with the one year left and these Democrats would not be interested in running for the office,” Gordon announced at the end of Monday’s commissioner meeting. … If not, we through some of the people we’ve talked to up the food chain, we’re going to go for a list of Democrats that would be interested in filling this seat without the use of the Democratic Party if it comes down to that.”
Menefee, the retired prosecutor, said he wishes the commissioners would spend less time on the politics involving his eventual replacement and more time on the budget.
At this point, the county commissioners have yet to approve a budget or put a solid plan in place.
Meantime, Menefee points out his old office is down two people.
Acting Prosecutor Gerald Fuller is doing what he can, Menefee said, “but at some point, he’s got to go home and put away the suit.”
“The game being played between the commissioners and the Democratic party is going to have some indirect results and some disasters for the office,” Menefee said. “Morale is hurting and the younger deputy prosecutors are all worried. And, with two people short, at some point stuff just starts to pile up.”
Menefee, who supports Svoboda, called on both the Democrats and the commissioners “to just figure it out.”
“This is not a legal issue, it’s a political issue,” Menefee said. “When I announced my retirement, I never thought this would happen. Never. I thought everyone would act rationally and that was my first mistake.”
The Democrats met Dec. 5 and refused to take up the prosecutor issue, even though it was on their agenda.
Smylie, who is also the chairman of the Grays Harbor Democrats, said that the situation was “rumor” to him because the party hadn’t yet received any correspondence from the county, which would have been sent on Dec. 2.
Wadsworth said he was on vacation and it was his job to check the mail, which he would do this week.
Smylie said at that time that once the letter arrived, the Democrats may take the issue up at their January meeting.
But Gordon, who was at the meeting, said that January would be too late. “If they want to meet me halfway, I’ll meet them halfway. If they want a war, they’ve got the right guy to do it with,” Gordon said.
Svoboda said the commissioners’ actions are exactly the kind of thing that keeps young professionals from staying on the Harbor.
“As a kid here, you hear, ‘Kids move away and don’t come back.’ I did come back. I purposely made my family here. For the commissioners to not do something to keep young people here is shocking,” she said. “If I were a young prosecutor, I wouldn’t want to come to a county where departments are suing one another, the department is historically understaffed and now this.”
The Daily World contributed to this story.