The Grays Harbor Democrats didn’t discuss the controversial county prosecutor appointment at their meeting Thursday, but a commissioner was on hand promising swift action on the matter.
“I don’t want to discuss the prosecutor,” party Chairman George Smylie said as he passed over the agenda item.
“There is an agenda item for the county prosecutor, why would you choose not to discuss it?” County Auditor Vern Spatz asked. “There was a letter from the county commissioners.”
“I don’t know that,” Smylie replied. “It’s rumor to me.”
The commissioners sent a letter to the Democrats Monday asking for a new list of three candidates to replace retired county prosecutor Stew Menefee after attorney Vini Samuel turned down their appointment on Nov. 27.
Smylie said the Democrats hadn’t received the letter yet. The person who usually picks up the party’s mail happens to be on vacation this week.
Once the party receives the letter, Smylie said he expects they would take it up at their next regular meeting in January in order to give the precinct officers time to consider the commissioners’ request for a new list of candidates.
“I don’t know why we should, because the constitution is pretty clear they have to pick from the list we give them,” he said.
January may be too late for a response. Commissioner Frank Gordon, a Democrat, was at Thursday’s meeting and said the commissioners plan to take action Monday. He declined to detail specifically what they planned to do.
“If they want to meet me halfway, I’ll meet them halfway. If they want a war, they’ve got the right guy to do it with,” Gordon said.
Senior Deputy Prosecutor Katie Svoboda, the Democrats’ choice to replace Menefee, said she was disappointed and shocked by the way the commissioners have handled the appointment.
“Their preferred person didn’t make the cut and like a child, they took their toys and went home,” she said, referring to former prosecutor and Superior Court judge Mike Spencer. “If you don’t like the rules, change them.”
Gordon disputed that interpretation.
“I have interviewed nobody. They keep bringing up Mike Spencer. I’ve talked to him twice in my life,” he said.
Instead, he said, the commissioners were taking a stand over party politics, and Svoboda herself wasn’t out of consideration by the commissioners.
“If they hadn’t have done this little stunt, she’d be prosecutor right now,” Gordon said, adding that one other commissioner has said he would have voted for Svoboda. “I represent the county, not just the small faction of Democrats.”
After Menfee’s retirement on Sept. 30 from the partisan post, the state constitution calls for a list of three candidates to replace him be submitted to the commissioners. The Democrats did that on Oct. 3, selecting Svoboda as their top choice, followed by Smylie and Samuel.
Samuel explained at the time the party felt it couldn’t trust the commission to honor the Democrats’ choice of Svoboda, and asked she and Smylie round out the list has an “offensive line.”
At the time, Gordon called the process “a farce.”
The process going forward is disputed. The constitution states that if a replacement isn’t appointed within 60 days the decision goes to Gov. Jay Inslee, but the commissioners believe they may ask the Democrats for another list of candidates because they did make a selection.
If the commissioners could pick anyone, Gordon said he still hopes it would be a Democrat despite the Republican majority on the commission.
“Deep in my heart I am a socialist, communist pig, so that means I am a Democrat,” he said.
Svoboda said the commissioners’ actions are exactly the kind of thing that keeps young professionals from staying on the Harbor.
“As a kid here, you hear, ‘Kids move away and don’t come back.’ I did come back. I purposely made my family here. For the commissioners to not do something to keep young people here is shocking,” she said. “If I were a young prosecutor, I wouldn’t want to come to a county where departments are suing one another, the department is historically understaffed and now this.”
In her letter declining the position, Samuel brought up the possibility of another lawsuit against the county over the constitutionality of their actions. The specter of the recent lawsuit between the Superior Court judges in the county, which cost taxpayers at least $628,000, still looms large.
Gordon said he’s talked with the state Attorney General’s Office and has been assured by staff there the office wouldn’t support a lawsuit if attempted.
He said the commissioners’ relationship with the judges has been good since the lawsuit.
“We’ve developed personal friendships which make things smooth,” Gordon said.
Despite the bumpy road, Svoboda said she’s still committed to seeking the post.
“None of this has made me want to throw up my hands, if anything it’s made me 100 percent sure I’m in this until the end. I believe I’m the person for the job. I’m in this until the voters tell me they don’t want me,” Svoboda said.
Brionna Friedrich: 360-537-3933 or firstname.lastname@example.org and @DW_Brionna on Twitter.