An overflow crowd turned up Saturday to hear options for putting pressure on Republican Clark County commissioners David Madore and Tom Mielke.
The two commissioners have drawn strong protest in the aftermath of their surprise May 1 decision to appoint State Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, to the position of director of environmental services without vetting him through the county’s typical hiring process.
The two commissioners said they bypassed the normal process because of the critical need to have someone in the role as the building season begins. Democratic commissioner Steve Stuart was furious with the move, and stormed out of the meeting.
In response, nearly 100 people signed up to speak at the commissioners’ public hearing Tuesday. But the comment period was pushed back for nearly four hours by Madore and Mielke, causing many to leave before commenting.
Angry over the series of events, people packed into the International Association of Fire Fighters Union Hall on Saturday to see if there was recourse to challenge the commissioners. Some stood outside near open doors and windows to listen in on the discussion.
The prospect of a recall election was briefly discussed, with former Vancouver Mayor Royce Pollard noting the effort would be an uphill battle.
“It’s very tough,” Pollard told the group as he described the recall process.
Pollard said a successful recall campaign would require financial support to procure an attorney. Also needed would be a volunteer effort to gather the 50,000-some signatures to put such a vote on the ballot.
Further, the group would need to establish a cause for a recall, a task Pollard said would be difficult.
“There is a very high legal bar,” Pollard said. “And it’s going to be a challenge.”
But a second option was offered up by former Democratic county commissioner Craig Pridemore.
A home-rule process, Pridemore said, wouldn’t reshuffle the deck on the board of commissioners, but it might change the structure of government in a way that could keep commissioners from consolidating power.
“(With a home-rule charter) you can structure county government the way you want it to be structured,” Pridemore said.
Pridemore said two options he sees that could reduce commissioners’ influence are to increase the number of seats on the board of commissioners and to replace the role of county administrator with that of an elected county executive.
Both could be accomplished if a home-rule election goes to the public, and a board of elected “freeholders” chooses those options in a home-rule charter.
Pridemore said one option to start the home-rule process is for citizens to petition the county.
But the other option is for commissioners to vote to send the home-rule process to the people. And from recent talk among the three commissioners, that might happen.
Mielke has championed sending a home-rule charter to the people for months, while Madore has expressed reservations on the process until he studies the situation further. Madore has said he doesn’t like the idea of county administrator becoming an elected position.
But Mielke might have his second vote in Stuart, who originally said little on the issue, but two weeks back appeared eager to bring it to a vote.
If the board elects to become the catalyst of a home-rule charter, it could go on the ballot in this year’s general election in November.
The recall process
As for a recall, the process would be much more litigious.
Katie Blinn, assistant director of policy for the Secretary of State’s office, told the Columbian last week that four steps would need to be undertaken for a successful recall.
o First, recall proponents must prepare a charge alleging a specific act of misfeasance, malfeasance or violation of the elected official’s oath of office.
“Misfeasance” means performing a duty in an improper manner, and state law defines “malfeasance” as the commission of an unlawful act. Violating the oath of office generally relates to official duties.
The county prosecutor has 15 days after receiving a charge to formulate a ballot synopsis.
o Then the prosecutor submits the charge and ballot synopsis to Superior Court. Within 15 days, the Superior Court judge considers whether the charges, if true, amount to misfeasance, malfeasance or a violation of the elected official’s oath of office.
Courts apply a very strict interpretation of those terms, so this is the stage when most recall efforts end, Blinn said.
Pollard has alleged Mielke and Madore must have met in violation of the open-meetings law to act as swiftly as they did in hiring Benton. But courts in the past have rejected claims of open-meetings violations as sufficient for recall, Blinn said.
o If the case is upheld, the third stage is the petition process, Blinn said. To put a recall measure on the ballot, petitioners would have to collect 25 percent of the total number of votes cast in the last election for that office. For Madore, that would be 39,549 signatures, and for Mielke, 44,053. Pridemore said Saturday the number is closer to 50,000 as they need a signature buffer to assure a successful petition.
o The final step is the recall election, which must take place at least 45 days, but no more than 60 days, after the petition is found to be sufficient, Blinn said. A law taking effect in July will extend that period to 90 days.
If a majority of voters cast ballots to recall one county commissioner, the vacancy would be filled by the remaining two from a list of candidates prepared by the ousted official’s political party.
If two commissioners were removed from office, the governor would appoint one replacement, and the new commissioner, along with the still-sitting commissioner, would appoint a third.
Any replacement would have to run in the next election to retain the office.
Staff writer Erin Middlewood contributed to this story.