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Lawsuit aims to reinstate Emerson as Island County chairwoman

Oak Harbor resident Bill Burnett speaks at a recent public meeting concerning the proposed law-and-justice levy. He filed a lawsuit last week to have Island County Commissioner Kelly Emerson reinstated as the chairwoman of the board. - Justin Burnett / Whidbey News-Times
Oak Harbor resident Bill Burnett speaks at a recent public meeting concerning the proposed law-and-justice levy. He filed a lawsuit last week to have Island County Commissioner Kelly Emerson reinstated as the chairwoman of the board.
— image credit: Justin Burnett / Whidbey News-Times

A frequent critic of politicians and the media, Oak Harbor resident and Oak Harbor School Board candidate Bill Burnett is asking the courts to compel the Island County Board of Commissioners to reinstate Kelly Emerson as chairwoman.

Burnett, acting as his own attorney, filed the “complaint for declaratory judgment and injunctive relief” against the board of commissioners, as well as Commissioner Helen Price Johnson and Commissioner Jill Johnson specifically.

BURNETT IS asking that the court order the board of commissioners to reinstate Emerson and issue an injunction stopping the board from any actions while “an illegally elected chair” is presiding over meetings.

Burnett is arguing that the two commissioners acted outside the law in removing Emerson as the chairperson earlier this month and replacing her with “a first-term, first-year commissioner who would not normally be eligible for the chair position.”

Johnson and Price Johnson voted during a July 10 meeting to remove Emerson as the chairwoman and replace her with Johnson; they were upset that Emerson defied the direction of the board by attending a public meeting in the other commissioners’ districts.

The disagreement doesn’t run along party lines; Emerson and Johnson are Republicans while Price Johnson is a Democrat.

In his lawsuit, Burnett cites RCW 36.32.100, which states that “the board of county commissioners in their first session after the general election shall elect one of its number to preside at its meetings.”

ISLAND COUNTY Chief Civil Deputy Prosecutor David Jamieson said he does not believe the complaint is valid.

“When the Board of County Commissioners has the statutory power to choose its chairperson from one of its members under RCW 36.32.100, the position of chairperson is held at the will and authority of a majority of the members of the board and a majority of the members of the board have the inherent power to remove and replace the chairperson when they believe it appropriate,” he wrote in an email message.

Johnson said the commissioners were advised not to comment on pending litigation.

Burnett did not return a telephone call for comment on his lawsuit, but sent a short email to the Whidbey News-Times with a link to a posting about the lawsuit he placed on a website.

He wrote that the issue is not about him, but about the law.

In an Internet posting, Burnett emphasizes the “Dillon Rule.” The principle, adopted by Washington and many other states, essentially says that the power of local government is limited to what is expressly granted by the state Legislature, state constitution or necessity of existence.

Burnett refers to the board majority as “The Johnson & Johnson Gong Show Revival” in his post.

BURNETT IS a prolific blogger and outspoken critic of government, the Whidbey Newspaper Group newspapers, including the News-Times, taxes and liberal ideology. He’s been especially focused on problems he sees at the Oak Harbor School District; he is currently running for a seat on the Oak Harbor School Board.

Burnett and other writers on his website, including Emerson’s husband, Ken, have been supportive of Emerson but acutely critical of Johnson, a more moderate conservative.

WHETHER EMERSON should serve as chairwoman is not a new question for the board of commissioners.

Emerson, an outspoken Tea Party Republican, was passed over for chairmanship by fellow commissioners Price Johnson and Angie Homola, both Democrats, in 2011.

Under a traditional rotation it was Emerson’s turn to be the chairperson, but her colleagues questioned her work ethic, her relationship with county staff and her accessibility to staff and the public.

EMERSON FINALLY was appointed to the chairwoman position in March of this year. Johnson, who replaced Homola on the board, initially delayed the decision, citing concerns about Emerson’s fight with the Island County Planning Department over an unpermitted project and thousands of dollars in unpaid fees.

Johnson relented in March and supported Emerson for the position. The vote was 2-1, with Price Johnson citing continued concerns about Emerson’s leadership skills.

EMERSON’S CHAIRMANSHIP was short-lived.

The commissioners set up public meetings in each commissioner district earlier this month to gather input about the law-and-justice levy. Johnson and Price Johnson didn’t want to hold special session meetings that would be necessary if a quorum was present, so they decided each commissioner would only attend the meeting in her district.

Initially, the directive was only an informal agreement. But Johnson was upset when Emerson sent out a special session notice on her own because she planned to attend a meeting in Oak Harbor at the Heller Road Fire Station.

It’s been a point of some debate, but Jamieson has concluded that the station is in Johnson’s District 2.

Johnson didn’t attend because Emerson was going.

JOHNSON AND Price Johnson warned Emerson that she needs to follow the will of the majority, which was for each commissioner to only attend the meeting in her district.

Johnson warned Emerson that she may lose her chairmanship if she didn’t follow the directive of the majority and would back a motion rescinding the chairmanship she previously supported.

Despite that warning, days later Emerson sent out another special session notice and attended the public meeting in Price Johnson’s district.

Emerson was stripped of the chairmanship the following day with a 2-0 vote, Emerson abstaining.

 

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