Prosecutor says latest ruling on homeless funds ousts county commissioners, commissioners disagree

(BRANDON HANSEN/Chewelah Independent)

The homelessness funds lawsuit has reached a point where the county prosecutor and county commissioners disagree on if they have been removed from office. (File photo)

Would be first ousting of elected officials from bond statute since 1939…

The three offices of Stevens County Commissioner are currently vacant, or are they?

Stevens County Prosecutor Tim Rasmussen said that a ruling by Spokane Superior Court Judge Maryann Moreno was a judgement against the commissioners’ public officials bond that according to state law means they are officially ousted from the elected positions regardless of legal appeal.

The Statesman Examiner is reporting that Moreno’s ruling says the use of homelessness funds by the county commissioners was an unconstitutional gift.

The commissioners disagree and said via their attorney’s letter that the judge’s latest ruling is not a final determination, and that they are still in office.

“A judgment must be a ‘final determination of the rights of the parties in the action’ and there are outstanding claims Prosecutor Rasmussen has asserted that remain unresolved according to your recently filed request for judgment,” the commissioners’ attorney said.

Stevens County Commissioners Don Dashiell, Steve Parker and Wes McCart have been embroiled in a suit over the expenditure of homelessness funds to help a couple move their home back from a caving river bank and to organizations that helped people with spinal cord injuries. The money in question totaled $121,000.

If the commissioners’ office is indeed vacated, the Stevens County Republican Party is tasked with making a list of people that could fill those positions and Washington Governor Jay Inslee will select two who will in turn select the third commissioner.

Appointed commissioners wouldn’t be in those positions very long as the November General Election will decide two commissioner positions. The third would face reelection the next November. Steve Parker had already lost his seat in the primary election, which will change hands at the end of the year.

The Spokesman Review is reporting that this is the first time since 1939 that elected officials in Washington have been removed because of the bond statute since 1939. A legal appeal in 1940 said that a Whatcom County commissioner would have to vacate their seat immediately, regardless of appeal.

Rasmussen responded to the commissioners objection to their ouster by telling the Statesman Examiner that the judge has ruled the defendants were liable for unconstitutional gifting of public funds in the amount of $130,326. The prosecutor said that if a judge rules that an official breached the condition of his of her official bond, the office is vacated. Unconstitutional actions fall under this category, Rasmussen said, adding that a bond requires an oath that an officially will faithfully and lawfully execute the duties of the office.

The prosecutor said he could issue a quo warrant action if the commissioners do not vacate their offices.

In October of 2018, Stevens County Prosecutor Tim Rasmussen claimed that Parker, Dashiell and McCart illegally used $30,000 from the the county’s homelessness fund to help a couple move their house back from the collapsing Kettle River bank due to the spring flooding in 2018. The commissioners contend that this is an election stunt intended to discredit the commissioners and help the county candidates whom the prosecutor supports.

In February of 2019, the Washington State Auditor’s office released a report last week saying that Stevens County did not have an adequate application and approval process for its dispersal of $121,000 in homelessness funds between 2015 and 2019.

McCart, Dashiell and Parker contended that they believe that the money they provided was in direct assistance to people was consistent with statewide guidelines and its own homelessness plan. The county commissioners disputed the auditor’s stance that there was an inadequate approval process for the Homeless Housing and Assistance Program. In both uses of funds, the commissioner said in their response the intended uses were for the support of the poor and the infirm. After the state auditor’s office did provide three recommendations, the commissioners office said they intend on instituting those as quickly as possible moving forward.

According to the auditor’s report, the funds in question involve $30,326 given to help a family move their house from an eroding riverbank in 2018. The other includes $90,893 for a multi-family transitional home for people with spinal cord injuries and their families. The auditor’s office recommended that the county establish a process and criteria for application and approval of direct homelessness funding, consult with legal counsel before approving extraordinary or unusual expenditures of the homelessness fund and to ensure all homelessness expenditures are specifically allowed by its homeless housing plan or revise the plan’s eligible activities.

After the auditor’s report, prosecutor Rasmussen filed suit, saying that the state auditor’s office deemed those expenditures “unallowable gifts” of public funds. He said the commissioners misused the funds saying that the homelessness funds used to use build a house for the nonprofit was a “bread-and-breakfast/layover/vacation house” for those with spinal cord injuries.

This home for the Casey McKern’s Pay It Forward organization, originally had backing from Habitat for Humanity but they withdrew for multiple reasons including excessive expenditures and a breach in agreement.

The other large use of funds included $30,128 to reimburse Joseph and Alena Boharski, whose home had its front porch sweep away and their house was condemned as liveable because the Kettle River bank it overlook was eroding. The money was used for a new foundation on the house.

McCart, Dashiell and Parker contended that this was used to prevent the Boharskis from going homeless, but the state auditor’s office determined the use of money was inappropriate.

Spokane Superior Court Judge Moreno had ruled that taxpayer money couldn’t be used to cover the commissioners’ legal expenses in this lawsuit. Last month the commissioners presented the county with $121,000 and said the matter should now be moot, but the judge also denied this request.

The Statesman-Examiner broke the story on Thursday evening, reporting on Facebook that Moreno’s ruling effectively removes them from office.

On Friday afternoon, however, the commissioner’s attorney office Kirkpatrick and Startzel sent a leader to Special Deputy Prosecuting Attorney George Ahrend.

“It is clear that the order signed by Judge Moreno on August 20, 2020, is not a judgment and does not vacate the Commissioners’ elected offices,” the letter written by the commissioners’ attorney Alison Turbull said. “Prosecutor Rasmussen is falsely reporting and representing that this order is a ‘judgment,’ but a judgment must be a “final determination of the rights of the parties in the action” and there are outstanding claims Prosecutor Rasmussen has asserted that remain unresolved according to your recently filed request for judgment.”

The commissioners attorney said that Rasmussen was unlawfully ordering or advising that the Stevens County Commissioners be arrested if they return to conduct the business of the County on Monday, August 24. The letter said that Rasmussen has instructed Sheriff Brad Manke to arrest the commissioners if they return to their offices after entry of the order on summary judgment, falsely reported to the local newspaper that the offices are vacated upon entry of the order and unlawfully threatened the Commissioners with criminal prosecution and advised them that they are subject to a gross misdemeanor for returning to the commissioners’ offices after entry of the summary judgment order.

The Chewelah Independent will continue to update this story as it develops.