The Grays Harbor County Commissioners now have a list of three candidates to fill the partisan office of county prosecutor, although they may not like the process the Grays Harbor Democrats went through to get it.
“I thought it was a farce on the process and how it was supposed to be done,” Commissioner Frank Gordon said Friday. “I’m a little bit ashamed of the Democratic Party even though I’m a member.”
At Thursday night’s meeting, two last-minute candidates were nominated to fill out the list, leaving off former prosecutor and Superior Court judge Mike Spencer, one of the two people who had publicly declared interest before the meeting.
The commissioners can now only choose between Senior Deputy Prosecutor Katie Svoboda — the other person who declared interest in the post — party Chairman George Smylie and former party chairwoman Vini Samuel. Svoboda recently received retired prosecutor Stew Menefee’s endorsement, he confirmed Thursday.
“I’ve just been overwhelmed by all the support by my friends in law enforcement and in the community,” Svoboda said. “I’m excited to just get to work.”
The commissioners have 60 days to make the appointment, or the decision goes to the governor, according to the Grays Harbor County Auditor’s Office.
If any of their selections decline the position, the commissioners may only select from whomever remains on the list of three.
Svoboda didn’t comment on the process the party used or speculate about why Spencer was being kept off the list.
“I’ve heard all the rumors, but I’m focused on me. I want to serve because I’m the best person for the job,” she said.
Svoboda did note after the meeting, “The appointment is a political process, and I think the party’s statement tonight was clear.”
“It’s pretty much a joke,” Spencer said Thursday. “There are two people (on the final list) until tonight who didn’t even express an interest in the job. This was just wired. I think it really just gives the party a black eye.”
While Smylie and Samuel are both experienced attorneys, neither have worked as prosecutors as Svoboda and Spencer have.
“They were the only two who were truly qualified for that. Leaving Mike out just kind of made it a little tougher for the commissioners to sit down and really look at the two of them … and find out who would do the best for the county,” Gordon said Friday. “There shouldn’t even be politics involved. … That kind of made what happened last night look kind of silly.”
Svoboda told a group of about 20 party Precinct Committee Officers Thursday night she wanted to be the county’s first female prosecutor, and spoke about her budget experience with the Children’s Advocacy Center and active role in the party. She also responded to a letter from a member that had been circulated to the PCOs by Spencer with concerns she would not be aggressive enough for the position.
“I have a long list of references, most of which are in the state prison system, who will tell you that I fight hard, but I fight fair. Can I throw a few jabs when it’s necessary? Absolutely. But I never fight dirty, I never give a low blow, and I always represent the office with the utmost integrity,” Svoboda said.
She made one comparison to Spencer, whose term as county prosecutor ended in 1982.
“While others may have prosecutorial experience, past prosecutorial experience is not the same as being a prosecutor. In the last 20 years, the game, the rules, the players have changed,” Svoboda said.
Spencer has criticized “the mismanagement in that office” under retired prosecutor Stew Menefee, and said the deputies working there need training.
“Katie’s a fine lawyer, I hope she stays if I’m selected as your county prosecutor. I think she could be trained — she is experienced on the criminal side, but she needs experience on the other side,” Spencer said, pointing to his own experience managing the department’s budget and role as civil attorney for the county.
Samuel directly asked to be the second choice, praising Svoboda. Despite inroads made by female attorneys over the years, the “good old boys network” is still intact, she said.
“I will say that it’s still very tough today. I’m absolutely sure that Katie Svoboda doesn’t need any further training. I want to be clear about that,” Samuel said, before being interrupted by applause.
“Which is why that letter circulated to the PCOs about toughness really made me angry,” Samuel continued. “My definition of toughness is doing a high-stakes job in a profession that gives no quarter and is dominated by men. It is 10 years of spending, month by month, knee-deep in Class A felonies and sex crimes. What it is not is how you look, i.e. if you wear a skirt, or what you say in a speech. Toughness is what you do.”
Samuel cited the commissioners’ recent rejection of former Democratic commissioner Al Carter’s application to be on the Grays Harbor Marine Resources Committee, which gave her concern about the commission playing politics with a more major appointment.
“That’s why I’m asking today that whoever your top choice is, please pick me as your No. 2, and George Smylie here as No. 3. Let us be the — I learned one thing from the Seahawks — offensive line. … Because I don’t trust them, and I don’t think they should choose who our prosecutor should be.”
While all three commissioners said Friday the appointment would likely at least be discussed at their Monday meeting, each said he wanted to talk with the candidates before making a selection, either publicly or one-on-one.
“Stunts like this keep people away from the Democratic Party, or the Republican Party. It’s probably one of the reasons more people don’t get involved with politics,” Gordon said.
Commissioner Wes Cormier was milder in his criticism, but also said it wasn’t the process he hoped for.
“I think if you have a pool of good candidates who are willing, then you should try to get them on the ballot. I don’t think that was the case. I think competition is a good thing,” Cormier said.
Commissioner Herb Welch said he wanted a decision “as soon as possible,” but would wait to talk to the candidates before reacting to the list.
Smylie and Samuel both said they would consider the position if offered, but didn’t definitively say they would serve.
Spencer said he was told by some members his criticism of Menefee hurt his chances. Other Democrats said it was his lack of participation in the party. The post is partisan, and the party has wide latitude on how to choose a successor.
Spencer said Thursday he didn’t anticipate challenging the decision.
“I don’t want to sue the Democratic Party. Contrary to what people are saying, I’ve been a Democrat since I was 8 years old,” Spencer said. He said his work as a pro-tem judge in local courts has kept him out of party activities. “The ethical requirements of a judge, even a part-time judge, is that you not be involved with partisan politics,” Spencer said. On whether he would run for the office in 2014, Spencer said, “I don’t know. I’m so disillusioned in the party, I don’t know what I would run as.”
The commissioners meet Monday at 2 p.m. at in the Commissioners Meeting Room, 100 West Broadway Street, Montesano.