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Citizens Irate At Call To Pay Mayor's Legal Fees

Attorney wants another $6,000

Some citizens are angry about a request for the White Salmon City Council to authorize the use of city funds to pay for legal services for Mayor Roger Holen, who is the subject of a recall campaign.

Several local residents spoke up about the issue at last week's council meeting.

The issue that sparked the reaction was on the council's agenda for May 17, listed as "Approval of request to pay legal service for Mayor Roger Holen regarding recall."

Council members received a letter from Holen's attorney, Teunis Wyers of Wyers & Haskell, P.C., a Hood River law firm, asking the city to cover Holen's legal expenses.

"You have previously authorized payment of the sum of $2,000 toward Mayor Holen's defense costs," read Wyers' letter, dated May 11. "Please consider this correspondence as a formal request for payment of the balance of Mayor Holen's costs of defense in this matter as well as any future expenses reasonably incurred. Quite frankly, it is incomprehensible to me that in these circumstances there would be any hesitation to cover these costs for your mayor. My understanding is that the actions which gave rise to the filing of these recall petitions all occurred with the advice and consent of the city's personnel committee, the police and fire committee, the City Council itself, as well as the city attorney. Under those circumstances, there's simply no rational basis for declining coverage ..."

Mike Zitur and Robert Landgren, petitioners supporting the recall of Mayor Holen, both addressed the council at the beginning of the May 17 meeting.

"I begged them not to authorize additional money," Zitur said. "The opinion of the Superior Court judge was that the recall process is legally and factually sufficient to proceed."

The Superior Court judge reviewing the recall case sided with the recall petitioners in his opinion, issued May 12. A possible appeal of the Superior Court decision regarding the case could add significantly more to the existing legal costs.

Holen has until May 30 to file an appeal with the Washington Supreme Court.

Zitur pointed out that the county, and not the city, will pay for the cost of the special election.

"I think that made a difference in voting the way they did originally," Zitur said. "They might have figured it was better to spend $2,000 [to try to prevent the recall] versus $8,000-$10,000 for the election. But the county pays for the election."

Rather than vote on the issue, the head of the city's personnel committee, council member Timi Keene, asked for additional time to review the proposal.

"I request that this issue be brought back to the personnel committee for review and recommendation," Keene said.

The request for funds was then tabled.

Keene said there would be a public notice of when the personnel committee would meet, and the meeting would be open to the public. According to Keene, that session will not be a full council meeting, but rather a meeting of the two members of the personnel committee -- Keene and Francis Gaddis.

As of Monday, no date for the personnel committee's meeting had yet been set.

Pucker Huddle resident Ruth Winner told the council that she attended the Superior Court hearing on the recall petition, held in Yakima on May 4.

Winner blasted the council members for not attending that session.

"I was shocked and amazed that no one from the City Council was present. No one. If you're going to spend more money, I'd think you'd be very curious about what you're getting for your money," Winner said.

Although she does not live within the city limits of White Salmon, Winner reminded council members that she is served by the city's water system, and thus is affected by what happens in city government.

After the meeting, Winner said the council's actions were "unbelievable."

"Those people on that City Council are the governing body for this area. For them to spend the $2,000 and no one be in court to listen to what happened is unbelievable," Winner explained. "They're going to spend another $6,000 after what the judge said? This is certainly not a frivolous case."

Keene said she had planned to go to Yakima at first.

"However, when both attorneys agreed there would be no witnesses called, council members determined it was not necessary for us to attend," Keene said.

On April 19, the City Council voted 4-1 to approve the payment of $2,000 to go toward Mayor Holen's legal expenses in the recall case. The council stipulated that Holen reserved the right to request further funding at a later date.

Wyers' invoice calls on the city to pay an additional $6,187 -- $8,167 minus the $2,000 the council approved in April -- to cover legal expenses to date.

By state law, the City Council can choose to provide city funds to cover legal expenses of any "past or present officer, employee, or volunteer of a local governmental entity."

RCW 4.96.041 (3) provides: "The necessary expenses of defending an elective officer of the local governmental entity in a judicial hearing to determine the sufficiency of a recall charge ... shall be paid by the local governmental entity if the officer requests such defense and approval is granted by both the legislative authority of the local governmental entity and the attorney representing the local governmental entity. The expenses paid by the local governmental entity may include costs associated with an appeal of the decision rendered by the Superior Court concerning the sufficiency of the recall charge."

"It's an unusual situation when an ordinance requires approval of both the attorney and council to approve it," said Deborah Phillips, attorney for the city of White Salmon.

Phillips said she would make her recommendation after the council votes on the question.

"I will only give an opinion if that comes up, and I will give that to the council," Phillips said.

A vote on whether to approve the fund for the mayor's legal defense is expected at the June 7 meeting.

"I'm assuming it will be an agenda item at that time," Keene said.

If the council supports payment of Holen's legal fees, the money would come from the city's current expense fund. Specifics on where the money would be diverted from would come later.

"That's a decision we would have to make should the money be approved," Keene said.

"Our city is already scraping for money," Zitur commented.

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