County chair says abrupt swearing in of District 5 councilor was ‘appalling’

Karen Bowerman also tells Clark County Today she believes the political maneuvering was done with the intent to raise taxes on area residents during this week’s 2023 budget process

“You’re done!” Those two words, spoken abruptly in a dismissive, curt tone by Chief Civil Deputy Leslie Lopez was how members of the Clark County Council learned Dick Rylander’s term as the District 5 representative had ended this past week rather than at the end of the calendar year as previously expected.

Karen Dill Bowerman
Karen Dill Bowerman

Clark County Chair Karen Dill Bowerman said the behavior of Lopez, who was representing the Clark County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, was “appalling.’’ She also told Clark County Today she can’t help but feel the series of events of Rylander’s end of service and the subsequent swearing-in of Councilor-elect Sue Marshall was designed with an intent to impact the council’s decisions on the proposed 2023 county budget scheduled to be addressed by the councilors this week.

“It was the most unprofessional exchange I’ve seen in all my years of public service,’’ Bowerman told Clark County Today Saturday.  

Greg Kimsey
Greg Kimsey

Bowerman was describing a surprising pair of events that apparently took place simultaneously on Wednesday. Members of the County Council were assembling for a scheduled executive session, which had yet to be called into order, which allows the actions to be shared publicly rather than being privileged. As Lopez burst into the council gathering and delivered her news, Clark County Auditor Greg Kimsey was apparently at another location swearing in Marshall to the District 5 seat. The dual actions came as a surprise to Bowerman and Rylander and even Lopez stated in an email to Bowerman that she had only shortly before been informed of the morning’s events.

“Without prior notification, you as Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney entered the room and announced to Councilor Rylander ‘You’re Done!’ (without) even having the sense of decorum to let the Council Chair be made aware of what the PA was doing,’’ Bowerman wrote in an email to Lopez about her actions. “No documentation was presented. The goal of the Prosecuting Attorney or County Auditor was apparently included (in) swearing in the councilor-elect for District 5 immediately. Accomplished, albeit secretly.’’

In her email to Lopez, Bowerman also wrote, “there was no time before ‘You’re done’ was rudely declared and the Councilor-Elect scheduled to be sworn in on January 3 at 9 am was already being sworn in in a different room or different place by the same individual (County Auditor Kimsey) at someone’s direction in Clark County,’’ Bowerman stated.

Sue Marshall
Sue Marshall

When reached by Clark County Today on Sunday, Kimsey said the decision to swear in Marshall that morning was made “when she asked me to do it.’’ Kimsey said he phoned Marshall that morning and informed her that the timing was her decision. Marshall told other media outlets that she, like Bowerman and Rylander, was surprised by Wednesday’s series of events.

“I called her and told her that she could take the oath of office she had been elected to anytime she wanted to take it,’’ Kimsey said. “She was qualified to fill the office the day the election was certified. I interpreted the law that when the election was certified, she was qualified to fill the office. I was very confident in my interpretation.’’

Kimsey said he was “a little surprised’’ that there was so much confusion as to why so many of those involved held the belief that Marshall would be sworn in along with fellow Councilor-Elects Glen Yung (District 1) and Michelle Belkot (District 2) on Jan. 3. Clearly, at best, there seems to have been a significant absence of communication. At worst, it would seem there was some political maneuvering at play.

“This entire scenario was appalling,’’ Bowerman wrote in her email to Lopez. “What written authority instructed the councilor-elect to be present with Auditor Kimsey for a swearing in before Councilor Rylander or the Chair was even made aware of a proposed immediate action? What was the written authority for immediate swearing in of the Councilor-Elect? Should one Councilor-Elect be given inequitable treatment over another by Auditor Kimsey? What was the written authority for an assumption of the Councilor-Elect taking office? If there are not in fact such requirements, then the action taken is moot. 

“Was there an intended ‘shock and awe’ effect by whoever arranged the secret decision and communication to negate the otherwise positive assimilation that this councilor-elect was set to accomplish in January with others?’’ Bowerman asked. “Was there a back door conversation carried out by others with Governor’s Office staff so as to throw confusion and disarray into Clark County Council’s scheduled meeting on 11/30/22? Or 1/3/23? Why? By whom? Does it have to do with manipulation of votes before final budget decisions?’’

In response to Bowerman’s email, Lopez replied in a Dec. 1 email by stating, “my sincere apologies on the manner in which information was provided at the beginning of executive session regarding Councilor Rylander. I do not recall stating ‘You’re Done!’ to Councilor Rylander. But if I did say that then I am truly sorry to Councilor Rylander, yourself and the rest of the Council. That certainly was not my intention to use those words. I admit it was an awkward situation and I feel badly about how it occurred.  Unfortunately, since Councilor Rylander’s appointment had expired, it was important to relay that information to him. Prior to yesterday, I was unaware that Councilor Rylander’s appointment ended once the election was certified on November 29, 2022.’’

Lopez wrote, “at some point during the November 30, 2022 Council Time, I received information from the Auditor’s Office stating as such. During the Council meeting, I reviewed a copy of Governor Inslee’s letter to Councilor Rylander (please see attached) which indicates: ‘This appointment expires upon the certification of the next general election.’ I then conducted research on the issue. Governor Inslee’s statement is non-negotiable since RCW 36.16.110(4) provides: ‘If a vacancy occurs in a nonpartisan county board of commissioners elective office or nonpartisan county council elective office after the general election in a year that the position appears on the ballot and before the start of the next term, the term of the successor may commence once he or she has qualified as defined in RCW 29A.04.133 and shall continue through the term for which he or she was elected.’ Pursuant to statute, Councilor-Elect Marshall is to complete the term of District 5 vacated by former Chair (Eileen) Quiring-O’Brien, and then continue through the term for which Councilor-Elect Marshall was elected.’’

Bowerman and others keyed in on the word “may’’ as the source of confusion as to the RCW’s instruction to the county in this situation. Obviously, if Kimsey and his office intended to interpret the RCW in the manner that was eventually done, it wasn’t communicated with Bowerman, Rylander and Lopez prior to Wednesday (Nov. 30). 

What is next?

It should be noted that a partial recount will take place Tuesday (Dec. 6) of the votes in 12 precincts within District 5. Marshall had an advantage of about 1,300 votes over Don Benton in the race for the position.

The Clark County Council will consider the $721.2 million 2023 budget during public hearings that begin at 2 p.m. today (Mon., Dec. 5). At this first hearing, the county’s other elected officials will be first to testify on budgets proposed by their departments. Council will continue the public hearing to 10 a.m. Tuesday (Dec. 6) in order to hear public testimony regarding the budget. If needed, the budget hearing will be continued to 10 a.m. Wednesday (Dec. 7).

As county chair, Bowerman told Clark County Today she isn’t optimistic about her ability to influence any changes to the maneuvering that took place last week. She doesn’t consider the current council, with Marshall in the District 5 seat, a legally-seated council. However, she concedes there’s no way Rylander can be returned for the rest of the current term. The other alternative would be to have Marshall’s tenure pushed to the Jan. 3 date when the other councilor elects will be sworn in.

“Given the many questions, the remedy and how to best proceed from here is of concern,’’ Bowerman wrote in her email to Lopez. “Given that action taken was in secret and outside of a duly-called meeting, I do not intend to Chair a Council meeting composed of a Council that is illegally formed. Agenda items on the December 2022 meeting dates should be moved to January 2023 under these extraordinary circumstances. On January 3, 2023 when the new councilors are sworn in as currently scheduled and the 2023 chair is elected, the meeting should proceed in an orderly manner as planned.’’

Taxes could be raised

If the council addresses the proposed 2023 budget as scheduled this week, part of that discussion will be the decision on whether or not to raise taxes on Clark County citizens. In recent years, councilors have elected not to implement the allowed 1 percent increase in property taxes. 

“One of the things coming up this week is whether or not to increase taxes,’’ Bowerman told Clark County Today. “So given there are some folks who are very adamant about increasing taxes, I think we can see why the push was possibly made as it was.’’

Bowerman, Rylander and Gary Medvigy formed a conservative majority on the council (as was also the case when Quiring O’Brien held the District 5 position). That majority would have likely continued the recent practice of not adopting the allowed 1 percent increase in property taxes. It should be noted, that Rylander had already stated publicly that he would not vote in favor of the tax increase.

Adding Marshall to current Councilors Temple Lentz and Julie Olson for the deliberations on the 2023 budget, Bowerman believes could lead to a majority of councilors who will favor the 1 percent tax increase. In addition, the council has the ability to reach into past banked tax increases to raise property taxes even more. When the new councilors are sworn in, it is perceived that Belkot will join Bowerman and Medvigy as a conservative majority on the council that would oppose tax increases.

“The decision will be to tax and spend or not,’’ Bowerman said. “My position is don’t tax and spend. Right now, our budget is stable and balanced as it is without that additional tax.’’

Bowerman made a point to state that she does not believe Marshall had any part in the political maneuvering that played out last week.

“I’m not holding this against Sue Marshall in any way,’’ Bowerman told Clark County Today. “I don’t know that she was part of the plot, so I’m not holding it against her.’’

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