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Judge admonishes recall petitioner

Controversy continues to swirl around the North Whidbey Park and Recreation District and the ongoing attempt to recall two commissioners.

In the latest incident, Island County Superior Court Judge Vickie Churchill sent a letter to the two attorneys involved in the case admonishing recall petitioner Tom Johnson for trying to contact her.

At the same time, Johnson and his co-petitioners, Grace Horn and Harvey Prosser, have started gathering signatures for the recall. The commissioners’ attorney, however, said it is improper to gather signature before the state Supreme Court has considered an appeal.

It is also inappropriate and could even be considered contempt of court for a person involved in an ongoing legal case to contact the judge involved.

“Mr. Johnson has been insistent on having ex parte contact with me, either directly or through my staff,” Churchill wrote, “despite being advised that I will not have ex parte contact with him or the opposing parties.”

Churchill states that Johnson was told that he needed to contact his attorney to bring issues to the court. “He refuses to abide by this direction,” she wrote.

Yet Johnson contends he didn’t intend to break any court rules. He said he simply went to the desk at the Superior Court and asked the person working if Churchill had written a ballot synopsis. He didn’t get an answer, so he returned later that day and asked again.

“I never tried to have any kind of meeting with her,” Johnson said.

Yet Churchill wasn’t the only one upset with Johnson’s actions.

“It seems disingenuous of Mr. Johnson for accusing commissioners of having improper meetings or sessions,” said Mark Theune, the attorney for the commissioners, “but then going behind the scenes to try to influence a judge.”

Commissioner Janet Sabalausky, who’s facing a recall, agreed. “Mr. Johnson has accused two commissioners of doing things through the back door,” she said, “but it’s obvious through Judge Churchill’s letter that he again is taking an underhanded approach, which is highly unethical.”

At the same time, there is some confusion between the two parties about the recall process itself.

Johnson, Horn and district commissioner Prosser — all of whom are members of a group called Friends of the Pool — are trying to recall commissioners Janet Sabalausky and Brien Lillquist. Last month, Churchill dismissed 22 charges against the two commissioners, but upheld a single charge against each. The charge is for voting to allocate $20,000 in district money to the Boys and Girls Club.

Johnson said he and Horn already started gathering signatures. He pointed out that the commissioners have 15 days to file an appeal with the state Supreme Court, which he claims they failed to do.

Theune, however, said Johnson misinterpreted the law. Theune said the recall petition process has been delayed by Seattle attorney Joseph Broadbent, who’s representing Johnson, Horn and Prosser.

According to Churchill, Broadbent is supposed to have presented a written order representing the court’s decision for Churchill to sign. But he hasn’t done that.

Theune said the commissioners can’t appeal until Churchill signs a written order. He has taken it upon himself to draft the order and will ask Churchill to sign it at a Sept. 12 hearing. He has also filed a motion asking Churchill to reconsider her decision in the Boys and Girls Club matter.

Yet Johnson said Churchill never told Broadbent that he was supposed to submit anything in writing. He claims he listened to the tapes of the hearing and Churchill never said anything to Broadbent about submitting revised language.

As Johnson read the law, the commissioners had 15 days from Churchill’s oral decision to appeal to the Supreme Court. He said his strategy is to submit the signatures to the auditor’s office and “let the courts figure out the problems.”

According to Theune, both parties have 15 days to appeal to the state Supreme Court after Churchill signs the written decision. Then the Supreme Court has 30 days to make a decision on the appeals.

If any of the charges against the commissioners make it through the appeal process, the petitioners have 180 days to gather the necessary 1,400 signatures for each commissioners. If that is accomplished, the recall will go on the ballot.

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

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