News

Judge allows recall to advance

The Friends of the Pool made it through the first step in recalling two North Whidbey Park and Recreation District commissioners.

In a hearing Monday, Island County Superior Court Judge Vickie Churchill dismissed all the charges, except one set, against commissioners Brien Lillquist and Janet Sabalausky.

But as recall proponent Tom Johnson said, all he needed was one charge against each commissioner “to stick” in order to move forward with the recall process. Johnson, Grace Horn and Park and Rec Commissioner Harvey Prosser — members of the Oak Harbor group, Friends of the Pool — submitted the recall charge sheets against the commissioners earlier this year.

Churchill ruled that the commissioners’ controversial March 18 vote to “allocate $20,000 towards the summer program as provided by the Boys and Girls Club,” and their refusal to revisit the issue despite being told it violated the state constitution, was factually and legally sufficient to support charges of misfeasance, malfeasance and violation of the oath of office.

Lillquist said afterward that he respects Churchill’s decision, but he and Sabalausky plan to appeal to the Supreme Court. They have 15 days to appeal, and then the Supreme Court has between 15 days to thee months to make a decision, depending on whether the justices consider the case an emergency. If the high court upholds Churchill’s ruling, the Friends of the Pool have to gather about 1,400 signatures for each commissioner in order to get the measure on the ballot.

But because of the timeline, Johnson said it’s very unlikely that the recall measure will be on the November ballot. He said there will probably have to be a special election later on.

In the meantime, Johnson said the Friends of the Pool are going to “press” the commissioners to resign. “It would take care of the the problems we’re having and save the taxpayers the expense,” he said.

Lillquist said he’s hopeful that the Supreme Court will overturn Churchill’s decision, but he concedes it’s difficult to defend against the charge. Under the recall law, the judges aren’t supposed to decide the truthfulness of the charge, only if the language of the charge is “factually and legally sufficient.”

In fact, Churchill dismissed 13 charges against Sabalausky and nine charges against Lillquist for failing to be factually or legally sufficient.

Churchill pointed out that the charges that accused Sabalausky and Lillquist of violating the Open Public Meetings Act or voting to sell property without a unanimous vote failed to show that they intended to break the law, which is necessary under the recall law.

In several other cases, Churchill ruled that the petitioners failed to provide specific facts in the recall petition. She dismissed charges, for example, that claimed the commissioners improperly limited the former director’s spending ability because there were no specific facts showing that the director was unable to perform his duties.

She also dismissed charges claiming that the two commissioners failed to fix the heat in a locker room at the pool. She said there were no specific facts showing that the former director ever told the board about the problem or requested money to fix the problem.

Churchill pointed out that Washington’s recall process, as opposed to California’s, is drafted so that an elected official can’t be recalled for simply being unpopular.

“We cannot recall elected officials for merely making bad decisions, as some of these are,” she said, referring to the charges she dismissed, “or for policy arguments or personal incompetence, as some of these may be.”

Ironically, the one charge Churchill upheld describes the situation that started the controversy between the commissioners and supporters of the pool. The commissioners voted 4-1 to allocate money to the Boys and Girls Club, with only Prosser voting against it. The majority of the commissioners argued that the district should fund programs for kids outside the pool, while pool supporters said spending on the Vanderzicht Memorial Swimming Pool should come first.

The problem was that the commissioners may have gone about funding a kids’ program in an improper way. Under state law, a public entity isn’t allowed to simply give money to a private group, though they can contract for services.

Yet Lillquist pointed out that the Boys and Girls Club ended up declining the money. “It’s a shame to drag the Boys and Girls Club into this muck again,” he said. “It’s all over something that never even happened.”

Of course, all the legal maneuvering involved in the recall effort comes with a price tag. Lillquist said the cost of defending against the recall is what upsets him the most. While Johnson said the Friends of the Pool, which is technically a political action committee, plans to spend in the neighborhood of $10,000 for the recall, the cost of Lillquist and Sabalausky’s defense is being borne by the taxpayers.

“It’s a shame we have to spend so much money on lawyers’ fees,” Lillquist said, “instead of kids’ programs.”

You can reach News-Times reporter Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611.

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