MONTESANO — With a few signatures on a piece of paper, the Grays Harbor County commissioners unanimously approved a settlement agreement Monday afternoon with the three Grays Harbor Superior Court judges, ending a constitutional debate over the separation of powers dating back to budget cuts done in December of 2011.
The lawsuit also included issues with a third courtroom, which had been promised by the county for decades, as well as continued security in the historic courthouse. The lawsuit was filed in Thurston County Superior Court, where a judge had agreed to let the parties settle their differences out of court in the wake of the elections of Commissioners Wes Cormier and Frank Gordon in January.
A consent agreement outlining the terms of the settlement will be filed with Thurston County Superior Court in the coming weeks.
The commissioners had restored much of the cuts done in budget year 2012 already. But, then they cut the judges’ budget again this year. The agreement restores all of those funds. The commissioners set a public hearing date for 2 p.m., July 8 to add $19,674 to the Superior Court budget and $148,970 to the Juvenile Detention Center budget. Plus, the settlement authorizes the judges to hire two new detention officers at the Juvenile Detention Center and authorizes promotions of a director of court services and a deputy court administrator. The judges agreed to leave a probation officer vacant for the rest of the year.
The judges and the county commissioners also agreed to set a timetable for the potential construction of a third courtroom. Both sides agreed to form a committee co-chaired by a commissioner and a judge to come up with a design and a location of a third courtroom. The commissioners also commit to “exercise due diligence to determine and include approval of a funding plan that will generate sufficient funds for full implementation of the approved third courtroom plan and completion of construction of the third courtroom within two to five years after approval of the plan by the Board.”
The commissioners also committed to continued funding of courthouse security and decided they would make security a stand-alone budget, instead of a separate line item in either the Sheriff’s Office or the judges’ budgets.
“This only made sense for us,” said Judge Dave Edwards. “Courthouse security and keeping security intact was really important to us.”
At this point, the only mandate for security are judicial orders put in place following the attacks at the courthouse against Edwards and Deputy Polly Davin in March of last year. Edwards says once everything is filed in Thurston County Superior Court, those judicial orders will be dropped.
The judges also agreed to allow the county’s human resources division handle issues that arise in the courts as well as establish clear personnel policies and the judges agreed to “cooperate with the board and other county officials regarding creating an updated county database of judicial fines or other measures to facilitate collection of unpaid fines.”
As of April, the lawsuit was costing taxpayers a combined $628,000, with the state picking up costs for Special Deputy Attorney General Scott Missall for the Superior Court judges and the county picking up the costs of Special Deputy Prosecutor Tom Fitzpatrick for the commissioners. More recent figures aren’t yet available.
As part of the settlement, the county agreed to pay $14,000 to cover the legal bills for the judges between November of 2011 and January of 2012 before the state got involved.
The commissioners have had regular executive sessions for the past few weeks to talk over the settlement agreement. They were close to an agreement earlier, but then more questions came up.
The county tried twice to settle the matter through mediation — once in June of 2012 and another time in April.
The county commissioners also tried multiple times to get the state Supreme Court to even weigh in on the issue, but each time the court decided not to hear the case.
Fitzpatrick presented the settlement during a special agenda item Monday afternoon before the county commissioners. “This is a product of negotiations and a product of compromise,” Fitzpatrick said, sometimes looking at the commissioners, sometimes looking at the small audience in the chambers. The attorney added that the settlement was there to resolve the dispute so that the commissioners and judges both can decide, “Is it something you can live with?”
Besides the fundamental issues of the lawsuit, Fitzpatrick says a consent agreement “institutionalizes regular monthly contacts” between the judges and the commissioners.
Edwards says he hopes that regular contact will avoid any kind of litigation issues in the future and that this settlement is the start of proving that the judges and the commissioners share “mutual respect” for one another.
“There is a level of communication that did not exist before,” Edwards said.
“We went through some good times and some hard times, but what matters is the good of the county,” added Gordon.
Cormier called the settlement process a “learning experience,” and noted he wasn’t completely satisfied, but he was happy it was over.
Welch said he was glad it was over, too. He said he had some issues with the settlement, as well, but was willing to look past it.
“I think we can put this behind us,” Welch said.