Payne appointed Clallam County's top prosecutor following heated debate Tuesday
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William Payne, shown Tuesday outside the Port Angeles office of the Washington state attorney general, has been named Clallam County prosecuting attorney. — Keith Thorpe/Peninsula Daily News

By Rob Ollikainen
Peninsula Daily News

PORT ANGELES — William Payne was appointed Clallam County prosecuting attorney Tuesday in a 2-1 vote after a heated debate.

An assistant state attorney general and former county deputy prosecuting attorney, Payne, 57, will take office no later than Feb. 1.

He replaces former county Prosecuting Attorney Deb Kelly, who retired Dec. 31 with one year left on her four-year term.

Payne, a Port Angeles Republican, said he intends to run for the same office in November.

“I'm hoping this is a good segue into that,” Payne said later.

Payne said he was “excited” and “humbled” by the appointment, which will be effective until the next general election is certified Nov. 25.

“I'm happy to serve the people,” he said.

Commissioners voted 2-1 Tuesday to appoint Payne in an unusually contentious board meeting, with Chairman Mike Chapman vehemently opposed to Payne's nomination.

Since Kelly is a Republican, the Clallam County Republican Central Committee picked three candidates for commissioners to interview for the $127,302-per-year position.

Commissioners gave separate interviews to Payne, general-practice attorney Robert Strohmeyer and county Chief Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Mark Nichols in an open meeting Monday.

Nichols was tabbed by the board as acting prosecuting attorney last month with Kelly's support. He will remain acting prosecutor until Payne takes on the appointment.

“I wish Mr. Payne all the best in his time as prosecutor,” Nichols said.

“He's inheriting a staff of devoted and qualified public servants, and I'm confident that public safety will continue to be the priority as it must be for the sake of the community.”

Commissioner Mike Doherty, a Port Angeles Democrat, nominated Payne, cited his criminal law experience and Nichols' involvement in a 2008 age discrimination lawsuit, among other factors.

Commissioner Jim McEntire, a Sequim Republican, seconded the nomination. Both he and Doherty said it was a close call between Payne and Nichols.

“The tie-breaker for me goes to the fact that once in a while it's good to have a fresh set of eyes in anything,” McEntire said.

Chapman, a Port Angeles independent, gave his full support to Nichols, who has served as Kelly's chief deputy since 2006.

“This is the worst decision I've ever been a part of in my whole time in county government,” Chapman said.

“It is not this board's job to change the course of direction. That is strictly delegated to the voters.”

Chapman said the county has traditionally appointed an elected official's second-in-command to fill the remainder of an unexpired term.

“This would be such a course change for this board to interject — in my opinion grossly interject — politics into this,” Chapman said.

“I believe that Mark Nichols has faithfully, tirelessly and ethically served the citizens of this county for eight or nine years as a loyal deputy to the three-time elected county prosecutor, who would still be in office today if she didn't have to deal with some medical problems.”

Chapman told his fellow commissioners: “Good luck. It's on your hands.”

He added: “Mark, I'm sorry. I tried. I think you did a hell of a job for the county.”

McEntire, a Republican party precinct officer who recused himself from the party's nomination of the three candidates, said public sentiment “was running about equal” between Payne and Nichols.

McEntire said he was confident that Payne would maintain continuity in the prosecutor's office.

For his part, Payne said: “I don't anticipate any big changes.”

“There's a good staff there,” Payne said.

“They're hard working. They're dedicated. I'm humbled to be working with them.”

McEntire said the commissioners appointed a “custodian of the office” until voters make the “ultimate choice” in November.

“I feel personally comfortable that I've discharged my duty in this matter in a fair-minded and objective way,” McEntire said.

Doherty said there were “serious accusations” about the prosecutor's office in the pleadings of the age discrimination lawsuit, which was ultimately settled out of court. The lawsuit was filed by former deputy prosecutors who were laid off Kelly.

Doherty said some of the problems in the office such as high turnover and long continuances have been solved.

“But some are ongoing,” Doherty added.

“Again, just looking at the skills of the two individuals, as far as kind of a business-like approach and as far as management, morale, leadership, I tended to favor one candidate more.”

Doherty said he spent about 25 hours poring through the applications and hundreds of pages of pleadings. He said he favored Payne's experience in criminal law to Nichols' expertise in civil law.

“To the average citizen, I think, in the public's eye, when they think of prosecuting attorney they think of criminal prosecution,” Doherty said.

“Civil is not high on their list. It's important to us in the courthouse because that's really important to day-to-day operations, but to the public I think their expectation is a scheme of justice across the community. And one player in that is a criminal prosecuting attorney.”

Payne said all three commissioners were “very thorough” in their consideration of the applicants.

“I wish it would have been unanimous,” he added.

“I hope to work hard to win over (Chapman's) support.”

McEntire thanked Kelly for her 11 years of service as prosecuting attorney. Kelly attended the meeting but left along with several others after Payne was nominated.

“We all owe her a debt of gratitude,” McEntire said.

“That's a very pivotal and difficult office in the county. It affects citizens' lives in a way that's very direct.”

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Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5072, or at rollikainen@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: January 15. 2014 10:22AM
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