By JESSE BURKHARDT
More than half of the members of the Husum-BZ Corner Community Council unexpectedly resigned during the council's March 3 meeting.
Longtime council members George Mersereau (who served as council chairman), Jim Fritchey, Bill Anderson, and John Riggleman left the seven-member council.
The remaining council members are Todd Collins, Bill Gross, and Jim Tindall.
The resignations were apparently triggered by a letter from Klickitat County Prosecuting Attorney Tim O'Neill. In essence, O'Neill's letter explained that the community councils have no legal bearing, and that the councils had no liability insurance against litigation and no legal protection from the county.
Fritchey, the Husum-BZ Community Council's secretary/treasurer, pointed to Tim O'Neill's letter as the underlying basis for the resignations.
"We can't work without liability insurance in this day and age," Fritchey explained. "The primary reason for it [the resignations] is because we don't want the liability any more."
Fritchey said he was not aware of any current lawsuits against the Husum-BZ Corner Community Council. However, he added that the threat of litigation was always there, no matter what decision the council might make, and it was not worth the risk.
"People sue for anything any more," said Fritchey, who served on the council for about 10 years. "Things are changing. People are suing people right and left."
Fritchey explained that the councils were formed for one purpose years ago, but the original reason behind their formation has long since ended.
"They were ad hoc to begin with -- to help set up comprehensive plans and zoning, then we were to go away," Fritchey said. "But the councils went on. We're a non-entity anyway. We don't exist."
Fritchey added that community councils are almost non-existent statewide.
Tindall said he was taken by surprise at the resignations.
"The letter from Mr. O'Neill was a complete surprise to me. However, his points were not news. I had never received any indication from the council leadership that I had any kind of liability protection from Klickitat County," Tindall explained. "And I was well aware that the council was simply an advisory group. The decision by my four peers to resign was a shock and remains a mystery to me."
Tindall said the resignations came early in the meeting.
"In `correspondence,' the letter [from Tim O'Neill] came up, and one by one, Jim Fritchey, then George Mersereau, then Bill Anderson, then John," Tindall said. "The four were asked to reconsider by councilor Todd Collins, with no action. I asked for the chair (George Mersereau) to deal with electing new officers, with no action."
With only three members, it was unclear whether the Community Council would be able to continue.
Tindall said he believed the council's bylaws indicated that the remaining three members could appoint new members.
Tindall pointed to the following text of the Husum-BZ Corner Community Council bylaws as explaining how the council could proceed, even without a quorum:
Section 5: Four (4) council members must be present to constitute a quorum. The act of the majority of the members present shall be an act of the council.
Section 6: Vacancies: Any vacancies occurring that are not due to the expiration of a term of office may be filled by the affirmative vote of the majority of the council members. A member selected by the council to fill a vacancy shall be appointed for the remainder of the unexpired term.
"Robert's Rules addresses emergency situations. That is, if our membership now is really three with four resignations, it is acceptable to proceed, and then hope for the approval of the questionable actions once the quorum is reinstated," Tindall said. "We need folks to serve on the council. They can call any of the three remaining council members for more info."
Fritchey said he didn't believe the council could continue.
"They can't legally go ahead," Fritchey said. "They can form another council, but it's not the Husum-BZ Community Council. We don't exist. They don't have a quorum."
Klickitat County Commissioner Rex Johnston said he did not know if other community councils around the county would also see mass resignations.
"That will be a matter of choice for the various individuals involved," Johnston said.
Johnston pointed out the County Commissioners have fielded many inquiries about the community councils in recent months.
"We've all had people ask us what is the status of the community councils, so we asked Tim [O'Neill] to research that and give a legal opinion about what the community councils are," Johnston explained. "Tim's letter was sent to the community councils so everybody knows where they stand. It was surprising to me that they had no legal or official status at all."
Johnston noted that the councils were originally created for a specific purpose -- to help the county adopt zoning updates. After that was accomplished, that was supposed to be the end of the councils.
"There was no more reason for them to exist, but they kept on going on and on," Johnston said.