Judges, commissioners meet over budget

MONTESANO — Grays Harbor Superior Court Judge Dave Edwards said that the judges and the county commissioners were close to reaching a settlement deal when County Commission Chairwoman Terry Willis shut down the talks.

Edwards said that led to more legal filings by the judges and continued litigation in Thurston County Superior Court to help resolve budget cut issues, courthouse security concerns and the lack of a long-promised third courtroom. The legal bills have added up to more than $400,000, with costs split between the county and the state.

Willis countered that if there had been a mutually agreeable settlement offer, and the other two commissioners had agreed to it, then it could have gone forward without her consent.

“There was a proposal brought forward and if it had been as perfect as the rosy picture declared, I wouldn’t have been able to stop it even if I wanted to,” Willis said. “To say that I stopped something in my sole position is inaccurate.”

In an early morning meeting at the county commission chambers today that lasted just shy of two hours, the commissioners and judges sparred over details relating to next year’s budget. It wasn’t until the last few minutes of the hearing that talks turned to the current litigation.

“You and I had a great conversation in our offices,” Welch told Edwards.

“We did,” Edwards replied.

“Unfortunately within days of that you went back to court and sued us for something else,” Welch said. “… But mostly from our conversations and what I’m hearing today the biggest problem is the budget. If we could come to an agreement on the budget, could we get rid of all the other stuff going on?”

“Absolutely,” Edwards replied. “Commissioner Wilson spent several hours meeting with me over a course of a week or two, including a lengthy meeting at the detention facility. He and I discussed in detail every issue that was related to the lawsuit and reached, what I believe, is a meeting of the minds of what it would take to make it go away and not just in principle but in significant detail. … I then met with you (Welch) and told you what Commissioner Wilson and I had agreed and you had agreed that was reasonable.”

Welch agreed with that sentiment and Wilson had said previously he did have good talks with Edwards and thought they had been close to a settlement agreement months ago.

Edwards said that a document detailing the settlement talks was then prepared and presented to the attorney for the commissioners.

Edwards continued, “And within a few days of that I was informed that Commissioner Willis said, ‘I’m not signing this. I didn’t agree to this.’ And only after being informed Commissioner Willis had said ‘no’ did we take the next step, filing a motion in Thurston County Superior Court saying we were going to run out of money.”

Details of the potential settlement offer weren’t released, although Edwards said the judges were fine with the current courthouse security in place and would be happy not to see a judicial review of a third courtroom, so long as some kind of plan was in place to start considering one within the next five years. Edwards said the judges are not seeking a “blank check” to their budget but just to keep the same funding that’s been in place for the past 18 years.

“I’m glad to hear there is an offer of a resolution,” Willis said at the end of the meeting, wanting to end it on “a happy note.”