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April 16, 2021

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Camden: Courts have final say on recalls

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The way some local elected officials don’t follow pandemic guidelines has kept the Washington Supreme Court busy in recent months deciding what would warrant giving voters a chance to bounce them out of office for not following COVID protocols.

Based on a series of rulings, it’s clear an elected official can’t be subjected to a recall for criticizing the restrictions and encouraging people to protest them. The justices upheld a trial court’s decision to toss the recall effort against Yakima City Councilman Jason White for criticizing the state’s pandemic restrictions and masking requirements, urging people on social media to disobey them.

White’s comments may have been “scientifically inaccurate and intemperate,” but not the basis for recall, the court said.

Similarly, the court blocked a recall effort against Thurston County Sheriff John Snaza for saying he wouldn’t enforce the mask mandate with criminal sanctions. Deciding instead to have deputies educate people about masks falls within his discretion on how and when to enforce laws, the court said.

But a sheriff could be forced to face voters for failing to enforce valid emergency orders while urging others to do likewise, the justices said in a separate case.

In its most recent ruling, the court decided an elected official can encourage people to protest, despite restrictions against large gatherings, without fear of legal consequences. But they could get tossed out of office for bringing protesters into a city hall when the building is closed to prevent the spread of the virus.

One is an exercise of free speech, even though elected officials take an oath to uphold the law. The other, however, can obstruct city business and create health and safety problems, the court ruled.

That case involves an effort to recall Kshama Sawant, the socialist member of the Seattle City Council that conservatives love to hate and some moderates aren’t so fond of, either. A group of Seattle citizens is trying to give voters – who reelected her a year and a half ago despite well-funded opposition – the chance to boot her out of office.

The fact that she unlocked the doors to Seattle City Hall, closed to the public during the “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order, to allow protesters in was one of the charges of malfeasance, misfeasance or violation of oath of office, which are requirements for recall in Washington.

Unlike some states where a recall needs only a general dislike of the officeholder and a number of signatures to make the ballot, Washington has certain standards. A trial court must determine the charges put before voters are factually and legally sufficient for voters to conclude malfeasance, misfeasance or oath violation.

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan was the target of a recall effort last year over her handling of the summer protests in Seattle, but the high court dismissed that petition in December as not meeting state recall standards.

Voters have the right to decide whether Sawant should be removed for letting protesters into a locked city hall.

They also can decide whether she should be removed for leading a protest march to Durkan’s house, revealing an address that’s protected under the state confidentiality program because of her former job as U.S. district attorney. Sawant said she didn’t lead the march but merely spoke at it, and didn’t know Durkan’s address. Recall supporters contended the councilwoman stood in front of the march and it would be a “remarkable coincidence” that the protest wound up in front of the one home in Seattle belonging to the mayor.

Just because the court says an official can be recalled for his or her actions, doesn’t mean they will. Organizers now have 180 days to gather the needed 10,700 valid signatures in Sawant’s council district to get the recall petition on the ballot. That’s a tough hill to climb.

But the court’s rulings on what’s a valid reason to make the ballot stand as precedent, regardless of whether a recall gets there.

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