MONTESANO — For the first time in about 80 years, Grays Harbor County has a Republican majority on the Board of County Commissioners.
At a formal ceremony Monday, Republican Wes Cormier of Elma was sworn in, joining fellow Republican Herb Welch, who will continue as chairman of the board. Also sworn in on Monday was Democrat Frank Gordon of Aberdeen.
Welch and Cormier both said that along with ongoing budget issues they plan to review Planning & Building rules and even touch on immigration worker issues.
“Don’t expect huge changes, but I suspect there will be some changes — especially on the communication and transparency fronts,” Welch said.
Cormier and Gordon were sworn in by all three Grays Harbor Superior Court judges, who wore their robes and stood at the front of the county commission chambers. That was unusual in that typically only one judge has sworn in an elected official at a time, but Judge Dave Edwards said he and fellow judges Mark McCauley and Gordon Godfrey wanted to help mark the special occasion together. The judges are suing the county over matters of security in the courthouse and over budgeting authority.
At their first public comment period, two citizens pushed for the commissioners to move their meetings to the evening or at least late afternoon to improve attendance.
“We may try that once a month to see how it turns out,” Welch said. But, he cautioned, “like most of our meetings, we could be by ourselves in the evening, as well as in the day time,” referring to the relatively few people who attend routine commissioner meetings.
One of the first issues on the table will be for the new commissioners to decide what they want to do about the lawsuit between the judges and the commissioners. The suit is currently on hiatus, after a Thurston County judge approved a stay of action. If the commissioners choose to continue forward, the case will continue on to the state Supreme Court, which has been asked to decide if every sitting Superior Court judge in the state should recuse themselves from hearing the case.
On Tuesday, the commissioners were scheduled to host a special meeting and immediately enter into a closed-door executive session to receive a briefing from their special deputy prosecutor.
“I don’t expect the meeting to resolve all of our issues, but it’ll be the first time for Wes and Frank to talk to the attorney and ask questions,” Welch said.
Last month, before Cormier and Gordon were sworn in, they met with the judges and were able to talk about the case. Both are optimistic the case can be resolved without further legal action.
“That’s one of my biggest priorities — settle this lawsuit and work it out,” Gordon said.
Gordon and Welch say they are also prepared to reverse a decision made by the previous board, which granted raises to all of the county’s employees — except elected officials.
“Let’s start everyone on the same playing field with a clean slate,” Gordon said.
Welch noted that the 2 percent raise would not apply to the county commissioners.
“We certainly aren’t giving ourselves raises on day one,” Welch said.
Cormier said he didn’t feel comfortable granting raises at his first Monday meeting and had the issue tabled until next week so he could review the changes.
“This is something I’m not going to be afraid to do,” Cormier said. “If I need more information, if there are questions I can’t get answered right away, there’s nothing wrong with waiting another week to figure it all out.”
Gordon, Cormier and Welch all said on Tuesday that they also want to reverse some of the potential cuts to the Sheriff’s Office, including an unpopular elimination of the resident deputy program on the North and South beaches. Details still need to be worked out, though.
All three commissioners say they support the implementation of a federal online employment verification system known as E-Verify. Welch has tried to push the issue before, but couldn’t find support. He wants the county to adopt a policy mandating the county and its general contractors run their workers’ backgrounds through a federal online employment verification system.
And both Cormier and Welch say they will also push the county to revise its nepotism policy and hiring practices, saying the current practices are too lenient and need more review.
Cormier and Welch may also have a chance to chime in on the way the county implements its newly-established critical areas ordinance.
Both have criticized the ordinance and say it’s too stringent on landowners and creates large of “unbuildable” buffers around wetlands and streams.
Utilities Director Kevin Varness told the commissioners on Monday that employees in the Planning & Building Department are having issues in implementing the ordinance and finding a way to get the public to understand what can and can’t be done under it.
Simply put, Varness said the ordinance is not user friendly and he says the commissioners may need to provide guidance on how to improve the situation. The question, Varness said, is whether to revise the ordinance or come up with some kind of rules or guidelines to help both planners and the public understand what to do with it.
Gordon, who resigned from his seat on the Aberdeen City Council, says he still plans to attend most of their meetings, including his old Finance Committee meeting. He lauded Aberdeen Finance Director Kathryn Skolrood “for schooling me on the proper way to do a budget.”
“My first job here is to build up communication between the county and the cities,” Gordon said.
Cormier said his plan is to meet each and every county employee and figure out what the different offices and divisions do.
“That’s going to take a few months, at least,” he said.
Cormier was also appointed to be the county’s representative on the Chehalis Basin Flood Authority. He says he’ll recommend Elma dairy farmer Jay Gordon to be his alternate.
“This is a big group with a lot of state money at stake and I think a commissioner needs to be at the table,” Cormier said.
Welch said he has also been tapped to be on the board in charge of the Washington state Association of Counties.
“This is an important role because this group is really fighting for us in Olympia,” Welch said.