Klickitat County's Prosecuting Attorney Tim O'Neill may not have realized what he was getting himself into when he attended the White Salmon City Council meeting last week.
O'Neill, who is running for a second term as county prosecutor, said he was there to introduce himself to local residents. The meeting began simply enough, as O'Neill asked if anyone in the audience had any questions about his duties or the workings of his office.
Also on hand at the July 5 meeting were Klickitat County Auditor Dede Pafford (she too is expected to be on the election ballot this year), and Craig Juris, the county's criminal deputy prosecutor.
O'Neill offered to respond to questions related to the recall campaign against Mayor Roger Holen.
"We are here in case there are any questions with regard to certain matters that have come up here recently that we keep reading about," O'Neill explained.
"Yes, this is an election year for me too," quipped Holen.
A White Salmon resident, Kari Abken, started the discussion by asking whether the statement Mayor Holen placed on the recall ballot had to be truthful or not.
"I read the piece you're putting in on the recall ballot," Abken said to Holen. "I'm confused because your statement doesn't coincide with the court's judgment. Does what is put on the recall ballot have to be factual, or can it be anything the mayor wants to put on there?"
O'Neill said that whether what Mayor Holen wrote was truthful or not was essentially for voters to decide.
"By statute, the party who is subject to recall may file a rebuttal. And it has to be attached to the recall petition so that the voters can take a look not only at the allegations but to the response to the allegations in order to make a decision as to whether they want to vote for the recall," O'Neill explained.
"But does the statement have to be factual?" Abken pressed.
"There should be some basis for that statement being made," O'Neill said. "But we didn't have a trial; we didn't have a factual hearing establishing that these are the facts. We don't have a judge saying that. These are decisions for the voters to make. What the mayor says by way of response is his response. The voters have to make a decision as to whether it's an adequate response."
Abken asked O'Neill if he had viewed the video recording of the May 4 hearing in which Yakima Superior Court Judge James P. Hutton agreed that the recall election could go forward.
O'Neill said he had not.
"If you have not seen that, then how can you say that the judge did not rule on what was presented in front of him?" she said.
O'Neill deferred to the opinions of the voters of White Salmon.
"It's up to the voters to decide if it's factual or not. The voters make the fact-finding," O'Neill said.
County Auditor Pafford explained that the recall ballot process is designed to present both sides of the case.
"It is for the people to decide based on the information on the ballot and their own judgment as to whether this mayor should be recalled or not," Pafford explained. "Nowhere on this ballot will it say, `this is a true and accurate fact.' The charges were viewed by the Prosecuting Attorney and went to a hearing, and the judge said, `yes, you can bring this to recall.' He never said `yes, this is exactly correct and these are true and accurate charges.' He said yes to the recall. The mayor has the option of putting in the response to this so we are getting the charges -- and they are charges only -- and a response. By a majority vote, the outcome will be decided. But it is strictly charges that the people have the right to bring. He [Holen] has not been charged with a criminal act."
"That's why we have all the allegation language," added O'Neill. "There is no finding if you look at the synopsis. It is all allegations."
Later, White Salmon resident Pat Baumgarden questioned Mayor Holen about his actions related to the removal of Police Chief Rich Cortese.
"You state that at no time did Sgt. Bruce Brending assume that position [police chief] or act in that capacity, yet at the time you got rid of Rich Cortese, you said, at that very time, you had appointed Sgt. Brending to take over those duties," Baumgarden said. "He was not eligible until late March, yet you appointed him anyway. Can you explain why?"
"Somebody needed to be in charge of the department," Holen responded.
"But he wasn't eligible," Baumgarden said.
"He wasn't eligible to be chief and he never was chief," Holen explained. "Sgt. Brending was given the duties -- not the privileges, mind you, but the duties -- that previously the chief had been carrying out."
"It still sounds like he was police chief," Baumgarden said. "I don't understand it."
City Council member Richard Marx then suggested that the county prosecutor offer his viewpoint on the question.
"Maybe Tim O'Neill could enlighten us on that," said Marx.
Marx seemed to sense that O'Neill was hesitant to take a position on the politically-charged question.
"Wrong meeting, wrong time," Marx commented as O'Neill came forward.
O'Neill gamely volunteered his opinion on the question, then added a disclaimer.
"In not knowing all the facts, I would have to say that in order for an individual to be an interim chief or an acting chief, they would have to be eligible under the statutes," O'Neill responded.
At that point, there was a burst of applause from some in the crowd.
"That is my interpretation of the law. I'm not taking a political stand," O'Neill added. "What it comes down to is, it's up to you to decide, and that's what the election is."