After 26 years in office, Grays Harbor County Prosecutor Stew Menefee has announced he will retire from his post on Sept. 30.
“It was just time,” Menefee said. “I looked down the road to try and figure out, ‘Why wait?’ And there simply wasn’t a reason.”
He said in order to get through the budget process, he stayed longer than he had planned. His wife, Cheryl, retired in March. “It was kind of a hard decision, but it’s one we’ve been talking about for a long time,” he said.
The Grays Harbor Democratic Central Committee will put together a list of three names to submit to the County Commissioners to appoint someone to fill the rest of Menefee’s term, which expires in 2014.
If needed, Menefee said he would recommend Chief Deputy Prosecutor Gerald Fuller serve as interim prosecutor. Fuller has said he’s not interested in the job permanently.
“He’s been in the office a long time and someone needs to sign the checks,” Menefee said.
Two candidates have already said they would like the appointment — former county prosecutor and Superior Court judge Mike Spencer, who is currently in private practice in Aberdeen, and current Senior Deputy Prosecutor Katie Svoboda.
Menefee declined to state any preference for a specific candidate to replace him — “I didn’t go through a process of picking a successor before I decided to retire,” he said — but did say, “If I have any kind of recommendation, it would be that it should be someone who has experience but is still fairly young” in order to create consistent policy for a long time to come.
That could be read as support for Svoboda, who seems to fit that bill, and she said Friday she intends to seek the appointment and run for a full term.
“I just find that it’s amazingly fulfilling work,” Svoboda said of working as a prosecutor. “I feel like it’s my niche.”
She said she would continue the close relationship the office has with law enforcement and build on the “strong foundation” Menefee has built. Svoboda has been with the Prosecutor’s Office since 2004.
Spencer this morning declared his intent to seek the appointment and run when the term is up, criticizing the current state of the office.
“I’ve watched that office, and in my view, among members of the bar and members of law enforcement I’ve talked with, I think it has declined in terms of respect and the way the office does its job. When I left there, I think it was run a lot better. I don’t think there’s a captain of the ship there and I think there’s a real need for leadership,” he said.
Spencer was Menefee’s immediate predecessor, leaving the Prosecutor’s Office after six years to serve another six as a Superior Court judge. He’s currently in private practice at Brown, Lewis Janhunen & Spencer in Aberdeen.
“I’ve really enjoyed the job. It’s a very fulfilling job and that’s why I’m a career prosecutor,” Menefee said. “I’m the gateway for the criminal justice system.”
He noted a lot of stress can come with that as well, when a choice or question asked the wrong way or at the wrong time might help a potentially dangerous person win a not-guilty verdict.
“You kind of become possessive — it’s our county. You hear us talk that way: I want this guy out of our county,” he said. “In the end, when you achieve the conviction of someone who caused damage or harm, there’s a sense of accomplishing something for your community.”
Menefee said in his 34 years in the Prosecutor’s Office, two cases still stand out in his memory.
In a civil case over the tax valuation of what is now Satsop Business Park, then-Assessor Paul Easter refused to compromise on his view of the value of the mothballed nuclear plant even as the Bonneville Power Administration fought for three years to show it had no value.
The county eventually won its point and the utility paid taxes on the property.
“That one in terms of sheer effort and magnitude is probably the toughest I went through. It also taught me Grays Harbor County has a lot of great public servants willing to step up for the county,” Menefee said.
He said the Bassett family murders have stayed with him for the opposite reason.
“It’s one of those cases that convinces you there is evil in the world,” he said.
In 1995, Wendy and Michael Bassett were shot to death in their McCleary home and their 5-year-old son, Austin, was drowned in the family’s bath tub. Brian Bassett, then 16, and 18-year-old Nicholaus McDonald were convicted of his family’s murders.
“It was done in such a cold-blooded and vicious way. The vision of someone intentionally drowning their little brother in a bath tub was one that was profoundly affecting,” Menefee said.
Hopes for the future
Menefee said there are essentially two types of prosecutors: A “political” office where “they shift their resources from one type of case to the other. It’s kind of like whack-a-mole. … Or you can have an office that treats crime as a kind of disease, that that’s the one I prefer. It’s not as flashy, but I think it’s more effective overall.”
He said he had been working to get the staffing levels up in the office, but budget cuts in recent years have reversed some of that progress. His successor will need to contend with that.
“If you overload your prosecutors, you don’t get the same quality of work,” Menefee said. “A lot of ground has been lost since then. A person coming in is going to have to try to make that ground up.”
Menefee also hoped the next prosecutor would maintain his efforts in recruiting and retaining talented prosecutors.
“We’re an aggressive office and we’re fairly good and we have that reputation,” he said.
He also had high praise for his partners in law enforcement.
“I think Grays Harbor has one of the better law enforcement groups in the State of Washington,” he said. “As a group, it has been a pleasure to work with them.”
Menefee said he’s encouraged by talented young officers in many local departments. “Law enforcement has a bright future here in terms of the quality that they’ve got,” he said.