Ex-acting prosecutor named Clallam hearing examiner, at-large court commissioner
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Dave Logan/for Peninsula Daily News
William Payne, right, is sworn in by Judge George Wood as the new Clallam County prosecuting attorney Monday.

By Rob Ollikainen
Peninsula Daily News

PORT ANGELES — Mark Nichols, Clallam County's former acting prosecuting attorney and longtime chief deputy prosecutor, has been appointed as county hearing examiner and at-large court commissioner.

Nichols' appointment by county commissioners came fewer than two hours after William Payne was sworn in as Clallam County prosecuting attorney on Monday.

Nichols held the office for 27 days, replacing former Prosecutor Deborah Kelly when Kelly stepped down for family reasons Dec. 31.

Two of the three county commissioners approved Nichols' appointment Monday morning after the hearing examiner and court commissioner positions were consolidated.

Hearing examiners render land-use decisions in accordance with local, state and federal regulations. They preside over land use hearings at least twice a month at the Clallam County Courthouse.

Commissioner Jim McEntire nominated Nichols, with Commissioner Mike Chapman seconding the motion.

“Mark, to me, is an exceptionally well-qualified individual and well deserving of all the good comments that I've made about him,” McEntire said.

“If we act on this appointment today, there is no break in service.”

Commissioner Mike Doherty voted no, saying it was bad form to appoint a hearing examiner without an open hiring process.

“What you're doing is extraordinarily unusual,” Doherty told his fellow commissioners.

“You just don't pinpoint a job for a person, who is very well qualified — and I support that person, too — but there should be an open hiring process.”

Doherty said other county employees might have been interested in the job.

“I can't believe that in a matter of 10 minutes, we're going to put through an important job without considering other applicants, ignoring the open hiring process,” Doherty said.

“We don't even have the final job description in front of us.”

McEntire said the county charter gives the Board of Commissioners the discretion to appoint whomever it chooses.

“It may be unusual but it's not irregular,” McEntire said.

Doherty said the appointment was “just not good policy or practice.”

“We disagree,” McEntire said.

Former Clallam County Hearing Examiner Chris Melly was elected Superior Court judge in November. He was sworn in earlier this month.

Nichols, 42, did not attend the commissioners' work session.

When reached by phone Monday, Nichols said he and the county had a “mutual interest” in his taking the new position.

“It's very much in line with my career goals,” ­Nichols said.

“I'm very excited to have the opportunity, and I'm looking forward to rendering my services as the hearings examiner and a court commissioner.”

As a court commissioner, Nichols said he will focus of civil and family matters.

Nichols has said he is considering a run for county prosecuting attorney when it comes up for election this year.

“That's something that I'm going to spend a little time thinking about in the near term,” Nichols said.

Payne, 57, also intends to run to remain the top prosecutor.

Community Development Director Sheila Roark Miller recommended that the hearing examiner's job be kept in-house rather than contracted out.

County Administrator Jim Jones also recommended that the hearing examiner be a county employee.

The at-large court commissioner position was severed from the hearing examiner's job description as part of budget cuts prior to 2012.

The jobs were re­consolidated after it was determined that it saved money to have one person doing both tasks.

Nichols will earn $118,164 per year as hearing examiner.

His $9,847-per-month payment is the sum of two half-time salaries: $4,372 per month for being the hearing examiner and $5,475 per month for at-large court commissioner, Jones said.

The county prosecuting attorney earns $127,302 per year. Nichols was paid at a rate equal to $102,451 annually in the interim role.

Nichols, who had planned to leave county employment contemporaneously to Payne's oath of office, became chief deputy prosecuting attorney in 2006.

In another divided vote among commissioners, Doherty, D-Port Angeles, and McEntire, R-Sequim, selected Payne from a field of three Republican candidates to be the prosecuting attorney on Jan. 14.

Chapman, a political independent from Port Angeles, supported Nichols because, he said, the public elected the Kelly administration in three elections: 2002, 2006 and 2010.

Payne is a former assistant state attorney general.

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

Last modified: January 27. 2014 7:46PM
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