MONTESANO — The Grays Harbor County commissioners unanimously chose attorney Vini Samuel to be the next county prosecutor Monday afternoon in what’s become almost a game of poker between the Democrats and the bi-partisan county commissioners.
The big question now is will she accept it?
When Democratic Prosecutor Stew Menefee retired on Sept. 30, it kicked off a nominating process to fill the vacancy, starting with a selection of three candidates by the Grays Harbor Democrats’ precinct committee officers.
Former prosecutor Michael Spencer, also a Democrat, said he was interested in the role, but he couldn’t get the support of enough Democrats to get on the required list to be considered by the county commissioners.
On Oct. 3, Deputy Prosecutor Katie Svoboda had emerged as the top pick of the precinct committee officers, followed by Grays Harbor Democratic Chairman George Smylie, an attorney for the state, and Samuel, an attorney and former Montesano city councilwoman. Both Smylie and Samuel support Svoboda. Menefee has endorsed Svoboda, as have the four House legislators on the Coastal Caucus.
The Democrats had banked on the idea that the commissioners would automatically pick Svoboda for the role. But the commissioners called that bluff and didn’t. So, what happens next?
If Samuel accepts the role, she’ll be sworn into office.
Samuel didn’t say if she would or would not accept the office, but was angry at the commissioners for putting her in this position.
“Earlier, county commissioners told newspapers that Mr. Smylie and myself were unqualified,” Samuel said. “And now they’re offering me the job without interviewing anybody or asking a single question? They didn’t even let me, or anyone else, know there was going to be a vote today. I had questions for them which need to be answered before I can decide how to proceed. I’m disappointed by the behavior of the county commissioners. Katie is, by far, the No. 1 choice of the county Democrats to replace Stew Menefee — and she is also Stew’s choice. So now the county commissioners immediately offered the job to the person who’s No. 3 on the list, somebody they claimed to be unqualified when it suited them politically to say so. They did it without talking to her, to George or to me. As elected officials, they’ve demonstrated bad leadership and bad faith. The county Democrats were right not to trust the Republican county commissioners.”
Gordon notes that as an attorney with her own law practice, Samuel is qualified to run the office from an administrative standpoint and says he thinks it would be possible for her to keep her own office, while managing the Prosecutor’s Office, if she wants. Samuel graduated from Seattle University’s law school. In 2004, she started her own law practice and four years later, built her own office a block from the county courthouse at 114 North River in Montesano. She handles mainly family law cases and doesn’t do much in the way of criminal law defense at all.
There’s no requirement that Samuel would ever have to actually go to court and prosecute crimes. As a comparison, Assessor Rick Hole manages the Assessor’s Office, yet he’s not an appraiser and doesn’t go out in the field to handle appraisals.
“I do know that people are probably wondering why we picked Vini Samuel,” Gordon said at the end of Monday’s meeting. “We think Vini Samuel will do a wonderful job as a temporary prosecutor for the county, which then makes it a fair and even playing field for Katie and Mike and whoever else out there wants to run in 14 months. We’re just going to have Vini on board for that short term so that the prosecutor’s office can keep running smoothly and it gives the choices for our girl Katie and others to do it and let the voters of the Harbor determine who is going to be our long-term prosecutor. I just want to say it’s been a hard choice for us all, but we think it’s best for the county.”
Commissioner Wes Cormier told The Vidette after the meeting that he hopes Samuel will accept the role as a placeholder until the 2014 General Election.
“It takes the politics out of the position and makes it fair for the two candidates seeking the position to run and get the support of the people,” Cormier said. “I suppport putting someone into this position, who doesn’t plan to run for the office. … As for the Democrats, I believe they violated the spirit of the process by not including Mike Spencer on the list for us to consider.
“My choice wasn’t against Katie, it was against the sham election process the PCOs gave to us,” Cormier said. “This political game was a blatant abuse of the spirit of the law.”
Gordon nominated Samuel and Welch seconded the nomination. Cormier joined in the unanimous approval. Welch voted by phone and couldn’t be reached for comment after the afternoon meeting.
“This isn’t a race for ninth-grade ASB president,” Samuel said. “We have felonies that need prosecuting. Saying I could be a token prosecutor, a figurehead who never has to go to court for more than a year, is ridiculous and shows contempt for the good work that every prosecutor does.”
The commissioners said they had not interviewed Samuel, Smylie or Svoboda formally for the position, although Gordon and Cormier said they had met briefly with Svoboda prior to the nominating process. All three commissioners also received a packet of Spencer’s references and his resume.
The commissioners said they didn’t directly invite the candidates to the afternoon meeting, but said the agenda was posted as usual.
“Right now, we have a cloud overhanging Katie and the commissioners office,” Gordon said. “This is not Frank Gordon against Democrats or Wes and Herb with the Republicans. This is to make an open and clear process of how the job is done to pick the prosecutor. I think Vini — being her office is close in Montesano — would be the less disruptive between her and George Smylie. Vini is across the road and could be in here to continue the program that is in there now and give everyone a chance to come in here with a clean slate. … I like Katie personally. This has nothing to do with Katie. If she got in now, there would be a cloud over her forever and it would probably destroy her opportunity to run and win in a year.”
TO THE GOVERNOR?
Cormier said he had hoped to just abstain altogether and send the matter to the governor immediately. But Deputy Prosecutor Jim Baker, the counsel for the commissioners, advised the county commissioners that just wasn’t allowed. The law was pretty clear that the matter would only go to Gov. Jay Inslee once the 60-day clock runs out, which would be the end of November.
“Say, you nominate Vini and she refused, would they have to re-pick?” Cormier asked Gordon Monday morning.
Gordon said that if Samuel declines, he hopes the Democrats will take her name off the list and come back with a new list of names.
Gordon said he had not sought Baker’s advice on that particular issue, but other attorneys had contacted Gordon to let him know that if Samuel declines the position, the position becomes vacant again and should go back to the Democrats for a new list.
Baker told The Vidette he had been doing case law research on county vacancies, but hadn’t seen a whole lot out there concerning the Prosecutor’s Office, in particular. Baker theorized that the only way the position may be declared vacant is if Samuel were sworn in and then resigns, triggering the 60-day clock to start again. Otherwise, Baker said it’s pretty firm that once the clock runs out, it becomes an issue for the governor to deal with, thanks to a constitutional amendment approved back in the 1960s after another county deadlocked on an appointment.
The constitution also states that the governor “shall have 30 days” from that point to appoint the vacancy “from the list of nominees provided.” Gordon had also been researching whether the governor could appoint someone not on the list.
Samuel said that the commissioners should stop trying to find a “loophole” in the process.
“Commissioner Gordon misunderstands the process,” Samuel added. “If I decline the job, it doesn’t go back to the county Democrats to pick another list of three names. This is the list. For commissioners to ask somebody to take a job for 14 months as a caretaker, just so their preferred candidate can run for office against a non-incumbent, is bad for the prosecutor’s office. If the commissioners were focused on taking care of the county, and serving their citizens, their number one goal would be putting the best person in that job from that list, not maneuvering for their favorite candidate next November. To say that I am disappointed in them is an understatement. People have interviews for jobs, even a minimum wage job. Give me a break. They’re not serious and aren’t acting like adults.”
“We need to be open and honest and give people the best choice,” Gordon said.
Svoboda was in court Monday afternoon, prosecuting criminal cases on the docket when the commissioners handed down their decision.
“All I want is to get our county prosecutor’s office fully staffed and running,” Svoboda said in an email. “We have a full load of felony cases with a shortage of two prosecutors to handle them. Justice is important to me. The public safety of our citizens is important. I’m disappointed that the county commissioners never even bothered to talk to me before they made this decision. They were happy to talk to me until I was the No. 1 choice to fill the position. People told me they’d made up their minds behind closed doors, and this would seem to confirm it. That’s sad to see. Our democracy is better than this. We should expect better from our elected commissioners. We have a lot of work to do and this only makes our work harder.”