It's finders keepers for county employees

The old, unwritten rule of “finder’s keepers” was codified Monday, as Island County Commissioners passed a resolution allowing county employees to retain any unclaimed property they find in the course of duty.

Under state law, government employees are forbidden to claim found items unless a local resolution is adopted that states otherwise. Without such a resolution, unclaimed property found by government employees is sold off, with proceeds going into the county’s Current Expense fund.

Now, all county workers have to do is hand the goods over to the Sheriff’s Office and wait 60 days. If no one claims it: Bingo.

“You can find lots of stuff in the ditch along the road,” said Public Works Director Bill Oakes. He added that county employees who turn in a lost item “should have the same right that any other citizen would have to claim it if it’s unclaimed,” provided they turn it over first to the sheriff.

“We want our people to do the right thing, which is turn the stuff in,” Oakes said. He said that county employees such as road crew or parks workers “find stuff all the time,” though the chances the lost items are valuable is rare.

In those instances when an employee finds money, Oakes said that it is only reasonable that he or she should get it after an appropriate wait.

However, not everyone was pleased with the proposition. Prior to adopting the new resolution, Mike Shelton, board chairman, noted a letter submitted to the board by Freeland resident Loretta Martin, who warned the county against any potential or perceived conflict of interest the resolution could cause.

Martin, manger of the Langley Chamber of Commerce, wrote that her own office’s practice is to donate lost or abandoned items to charity after a six-month wait, and that in order to prevent “even the perception of a conflict of interest,” employees are never allowed to keep unclaimed stuff.

Although Martin said that she doesn’t doubt the honesty of “hard working county employees and officials,” she appeared to suggest that lost items could be put to better use.

“I know that some counties dispose of unclaimed lost property by putting lost items in an... ‘auction’ which is open to the public,” she wrote. “That could eliminate perceived conflicts of interest and perhaps generate some money for the county.”

Commissioner Bill Thorn responded to Martin’s in absentia objections, saying that the county always made every effort to locate and notify owners of lost property.

“I find it difficult to see how there would be a conflict of interest,” Thorn said of the resolution.

Commissioner Mac McDowell pointed out that, contrary to Martin’s concerns, the absence of a resolution granting lost property rights to county employees could entail more of a perceived conflict of interest. He said that if county workers knew they couldn’t retain unclaimed items, they might not be so impelled to turn them over in the first place.

The motion to adopt the resolution carried unanimously.

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