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Recall legal fee lid rejected

The recent atmosphere of grouchiness continued at the North Whidbey Park and Recreation meeting Tuesday night.

Commissioner T.J. Harmon-Fisher raised hackles among several commissioners when she suggested that the district put a cap on the legal expenses being incurred in defending two commissioners against a recall petition.

Harmon-Fisher emphasized that the district is already over budget for the year. She said the commissioners shouldn’t “unfairly encumber the district” with unknown expenses.

On the other side, Commissioner Janet Sabalausky argued that the district has a responsibility to take care of the commissioners’ legal expenses in regard to the recall. Commissioner Brien Lillquist said the recall sponsors are responsible for the budget uncertainties.

“They are the ones putting the burden on the district,” he said.

In the end, Harmon-Fisher’s motion was defeated in a 2-2 vote.

Last week, Island County Superior Court Judge Vickie Churchill dismissed all but one of the recall charges brought against Sabalausky and Lillquist by three members of an Oak Harbor group called Friends of the Pool. The two commissioners plan to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.

Nobody knows how much the recall defense will end up costing the district. As of Tuesday, the district hadn’t received a bill from Oak Harbor attorney Mark Theune, who’s representing the two commissioners. Lillquist said earlier that the appeal to the Supreme Court will likely cost a hefty sum, especially since Theune will have to travel to Olympia.

Tom Johnson, one of the recall petitioners, estimated earlier this year that Friends of the Pool would spend up to $10,000 on the recall effort.

The commissioners voted to use taxpayer dollars to cover the cost of a legal defense in two special meetings earlier this month. The district’s regular lawyer, Bill Hawkins of Oak Harbor, told the board that it would be perfectly legal to use district funds. Nevertheless, Commissioners Harmon-Fisher and Harvey Prosser are unhappy about it.

Harmon-Fisher was absent from both special meetings so she was unable to cost a vote on the issue. She complained Tuesday that she wasn’t notified of the first special meeting until after it happened. The ultimate decision, however, was made at the second meeting.

In her motion, Harmon-Fisher said the legal expenses should be capped at a sum suggested by the district treasurer, Commissioner Fred Smyth, since he has a handle on the budget. Smyth said the district has “an unspoken for $100,000 in the fiscal year” which could be used for legal expenses. Otherwise, the money will roll over into next year’s budget.

Prosser, however, wasn’t happy about the $100,000 figure. He suggested a $20,000 cap, and incorporated in into Harmon-Fisher’s motion as a friendly amendment. “The major concern, “ he said, “is that we don’t waste park district funds.”

The motion failed with Prosser and Harmon-Fisher voting in favor and Smyth and Lillquist voting against. Sabalausky, the chairperson, said she didn’t need to cast a vote.

After the vote, local resident Ross Wilhelm spoke during the public comment period and suggested Sabalausky and Lillquist resign to avoid any more legal fees and to end controversy in the district. Neither of the commissioners responded.

The one charge that Sabalausky and Lillquist have to defend against is their 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.

Ironically, Harmon-Fisher may be just as guilty as Lillquist and Sabalausky if the Supreme Court upholds the charge. She joined Lillquist and Sabalausky in the 4-1 vote to hand money to the kids’ club.

Only Prosser voted against it.

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

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