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June 25, 2022

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3 Richland school officials to ask Washington Supreme Court to toss out recall effort

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KENNEWICK — The three Richland School Board members will ask Washington state’s highest court to review a Tri-City judge’s decision allowing a recall effort to move forward to the signature-gathering stage.

The intent to appeal was announced late Thursday by the attorney for Kari Williams, Semi Bird and Audra Byrd. A news release says the three “disagree with the court’s analysis and conclusions.”

But first, they’ll ask Benton County Superior Court Judge Norma Rodriguez to reconsider a part of her ruling this week.

“The case highlights an important issue of the right of elected public officials to vote for what he or she believes is right, and not have to face a recall action every time a vote is taken on a controversial issue,” attorney Jerry Moberg said in a statement.

The recall petition stems from a Feb. 15 vote by the Richland School Board to make wearing face masks to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus optional inside schools.

In his news release Thursday, Moberg said his clients were assured by Benton Franklin Health District officials and others that there was “no health risk” associated with their decision.

“The state superintendent of public instruction Chris Reykdal had stated a week before their vote that it was time to remove the mandatory mask mandate at schools in the state. My clients believed then, as they do now, that their vote was in the best interest of their constituents,” Moberg said.

Rodriguez on Wednesday issued an order saying that most of the charges levied against three members on the Richland School Board were sufficient to move forward to collecting signatures in an attempt to put the issue on the ballot.

“I cannot consider the truth of these counts … It’s just to whether these charges are properly and sufficiently supported, and that’s all we’re doing today,” Rodriguez told lawyers and the courtroom on Wednesday.

The charges approved in the recall of Byrd, Bird and Williams are as follows:

  • Violated the Open Public Meetings Act by voting at a special meeting taking final action on a matter, to wit: masking optional, that had not been included in the published public meeting agenda.
  • Held non-public meetings in violation of the Open Public Meetings Act.
  • Voted to make masks at schools optional, in knowing violation of the law and in excess of the powers of a school board, even after warnings from the state and from legal counsel.
  • Violated the district code of ethics by failing to: (1) uphold all laws, rules and regulations, and/or (2) use legal and ethical procedures; and/or (3) ensure schools are well run; and/or (4) consult those affected by changes in policy.
  • Violated district policies and procedures by failing to assure compliance with law and policy.

Moberg disagreed with the recall group’s assertion that his clients had held “secret” meetings via text message that should have been public, and that they worked to intentionally break state law and the indoor mask mandate.

He also said he believed the charges alleging violations to the district’s policies and code of ethics should be thrown out because they are not legally binding.

However, Doug McKinley, the attorney for the Richland School Board Recall, told the Herald,”If you want to engage in civic disobedience, and violate the law to take a point, stand on it. Don’t turn around and say, ‘Oh, I didn’t violate the law.”

An appeal to the state Supreme Court must happen within 15 days of the judge’s order being entered in Benton County Superior Court, and that sets in motion a schedule for briefs to be submitted.

Supreme Court would have 30 days from May 11 to decide if it will accept the case.

A date then will be set for the entire Supreme Court to consider the appeal and to decide if it will hear arguments in the case.

If the court accepts the review, attorneys would likely ask for a quick turnaround decision because of the state law dealing with recall efforts of elected officials.

In the case of the recall of Benton County Sheriff Jerry Hatcher, the Supreme Court agreed in September 2020 to an accelerated review of the recall charges filed against him.

The court reviewed and decided the case in November 2020. And signatures began being collected within days of the court’s unanimous ruling.

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