MONTESANO — Grays Harbor County commissioners say they aren’t in a rush to immediately approve a potential settlement deal offered by the Superior Court judges in a lawsuit the judges brought to assert authority over the county’s judicial system budget, even as the legal bills continue to pile up.
As of the end of the year, taxpayers had paid attorneys at least half a million dollars for legal work on the lawsuit. The fees have been split between the county and the state.
Last week, newly installed Commissioners Frank Gordon and Wes Cormier received a briefing from special deputy prosecutor Tom Fitzpatrick. The commissioners took no formal action, but say they asked plenty of questions.
“It’s a bit of a learning curve,” Gordon said, holding a thick binder in one hand and placing a hand on a stack of paper standing more than a foot high on his desk. “I’m only about halfway done reading everything and I’m not one to just approve something without making sure I have all of my questions answered and know everything I can about the case.”
County Commission Chairman Herb Welch confirmed the judges had put forward a formal settlement offer. The offer remains in draft form, has not been approved by the parties, is part of the litigation process and, for those reasons, is not subject to public release under the state public records act.
“We need to talk about it, go over all of the details and see what we like, what we don’t like,” Welch said.
The judges have spent $310,159 in legal billings as of the end of November, according to the state Attorney General’s Office. Those are paid by the state. Grays Harbor Budget Director Brenda Sherman said on Monday that the county has spent $205,000 in legal billings to date. That’s a combined $515,159. Sherman says she’s budgeted for the county to spend an additional $200,000 this year.
Welch said he hopes to keep the county’s legal costs down, but noted as settlement talks intensify, they’ll need to rely on Fitzpatrick to sort through “the legalese and the paperwork” to make sure the commissioners understand everything.
“The judges have law degrees, they understand the details of the law and we need to rely on an attorney to make sure we also understand our options,” Welch said.
The lawsuit was filed in Thurston County Superior Court in December 2011 after the commissioners cut the judges’ operating budget and a related budget for the Juvenile Detention Center.
Last year, the commissioners restored all of the cuts they had directed to both budgets.
But then they directed more cuts in the 2013 budget, specifically laying off a part-time secretary at the Juvenile Detention Center, not filling the positions of a probation counselor, two extra detention officers or agreeing to a requested promotion. All that resulted in $185,566 in cuts to the office.
The commissioners also decreased the judge’s “extra help” by $9,143 in the Superior Court budget. Although the lawsuit doesn’t talk about the 2013 budget, it could be amended if the lawsuit isn’t settled.
Also in the lawsuit are issues surrounding a long-promised third courtroom and courthouse security costs.
“Really, when it comes down to it, we don’t need to settle this case tomorrow or the day after that,” Gordon said.
“We really have until April to figure this out.”
Gordon noted the case has been “stayed” by a Thurston County judge to give both sides time to sort out their differences.
Scott Missall, the special attorney general representing the judges, said last week he hopes the settlement talks work out.
Meantime, the Grays Harbor County commissioners also have their eyes on similar budget battles around the state.
In Cowlitz County, the Superior Court judges were in the process of hiring Missall while the Cowlitz County commissioners have hired Fitzpatrick as budget talks soured. Cowlitz judges have given their commissioners a two-month grace period before they say they’ll file a lawsuit this March. The commissioners had directed a 5 percent cut or a loss of about $270,000, according to The Daily News of Longview.
In Yakima, the judges there have complained about a $500,000 budget cut.
Welch said he’s heard through his county association about some other potential budget battles with judges in the Puget Sound area.
“I don’t think we’re completely alone out there anymore,” Welch said.
“What we really need is for the state to see these battles, in either lawsuit form or whatever else, to realize that we really need their help and that funding the courts should not just be the responsibility of the county,” Gordon added.
Steven Friederich, a Daily World writer, can be reached at 537-3927, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org