The clock is now ticking. On Friday, May 12, Yakima County Superior Court Judge James P. Hutton gave a green light to allow a recall campaign against White Salmon Mayor Roger Holen to proceed.
Holen has been the target of a possible recall effort since January, when he removed Richard Cortese from his post as chief of the Bingen-White Salmon Police Department and replaced him with Sgt. Bruce Brending.
In an opinion issued on May 12, Judge Hutton determined that there was "sufficient factual and legal basis" for the recall to go forward on five separate charges.
Proponents of recalling Mayor Holen presented five claims of misfeasance or malfeasance against him. Allegations include: Holen removed Cortese as chief without cause and replaced him with someone legally disqualified; Holen failed to conduct the required criminal background check on Brending before appointing him as chief; Holen failed to require Brending to submit a sworn statement of eligibility before appointing him; Holen failed to remove Brending as chief even after he learned that Brending was legally disqualified; and Holen was using public money to pay Cortese's salary after Cortese had been discharged.
The petitioners' recall synopsis asserts that Brending was disqualified under RCW 35.21.333 to serve as chief because of an Oct. 29, 2001, state of Oregon driving conviction of "driving under the influence of intoxicants."
Robert Landgren, one of the recall petitioners, said Holen's actions were "out of bounds."
"The mayor should not have removed Richard [Cortese] as the chief, but he certainly acted outside the bounds of the law when he appointed a person who was legally disqualified from serving," Landgren said. "When we tried to bring these blatant law violations to his attention, Roger just thumbed his nose and refused to correct the problem. If an elected official does not comply with the law, what else can a citizen do but what we did in this case?"
Landgren is being represented by attorney Bradley W. Andersen of Stevenson.
Judge Hutton said he was convinced the "petitioners have met their burden of proof for all five stated reasons in their petition for recall on a factual and legal basis to proceed with the recall ... the court finds that the wording of the ballot synopsis prepared by the Klickitat County Prosecutor is accurate and sufficient to present to the voters of White Salmon ..."
In Hutton's conclusion, the judge took issue with Holen's claims.
"The court is not persuaded by Mayor Holen's argument that since Mr. Brending was not sworn in formally as chief, that there was no completed act of appointment ... the evidence in this case is abundant that the mayor intended to appoint, and did appoint, Mr. Brending to the position of chief of police. An oath of office would merely have been a formality signifying nothing," Hutton wrote.
In a statement, Landgren added that he strongly disagreed with the recent decision by the White Salmon City Council to allow city funds to be used to pay for Holen's legal fees against the recall.
"Why should the citizens have to pay the mayor's legal fees when he clearly ignored and then violated the law?" Landgren asked. "In light of the judge's decision that the recall should proceed, I hope the City Council will reconsider its decision and refuse to pay Roger's legal fees."
Judge Hutton pointed out that it will be up to the voters of White Salmon to determine whether Holen should be removed from office.
"It will ultimately be the voters of White Salmon who will decide if the veracity of the charges are sufficient to constitute a recall of the elected official," Hutton explained in his opinion.
By law, Holen has 15 days to appeal the judge's decision to the Washington Supreme Court. If Holen does not file an appeal, recall proponents will have 180 days to obtain at least 205 valid signatures of registered voters (35 percent of those who voted in the previous election for mayor, which was in November 2005) within the city limits of White Salmon.
If sufficient valid signatures are obtained, White Salmon voters will then have a special election set and will vote "Yes" or "No" on whether to recall Mayor Holen.
Holen's attorney, Teunis Wyers, did not return a telephone call seeking comment by press time on Tuesday. It was unclear whether Holen would file an appeal of the judge's decision before the May 27 deadline.