Clallam County Commissioners finalize Nichols’ appointment with 2-1 vote after heated debate

By Paul Gottlieb
Peninsula Daily News

PORT ANGELES — Clallam County Commissioners Mike Chapman and Mike Doherty battled again Tuesday as Mark Nichols’ appointment as the county’s hearings examiner was finalized.

The commissioners, after debating at Monday’s workshop as well as Tuesday’s regular meeting, voted 2-1 on a resolution that hires the former county chief deputy prosecuting attorney to the half-time, land-use-related position.

Doherty has criticized the hiring because it took place without the county advertising for the position, which pays $52,464.

“You knew one guy and you aimed a job at a person, at a friend,” Doherty said during a heated exchange at Monday’s work session.

“My God, man, what do you want from us?” Chapman said at the meeting.

On Tuesday, Chapman voted with Commissioner Jim McEntire to hire Nichols, while Doherty was opposed.

Doherty said it violates the spirit of equal-opportunity hiring and the open-government aspects of the county charter, which Doherty helped author in the 1970s.

“Our over-arching policy should be open government, open hiring, all those things,” he said.

Chapman said Doherty’s political party “can do what it wants to denigrate this decision.”

Doherty is a Democrat, while Chapman is a former county Republican Party member who is now independent.

“You can’t violate a law when you make a decision in public,” Chapman said.

“I ask what it is you are trying to do other than make cheap political points about what you don’t like.

“I know we have appointed a good person who is well qualified who has been loyal to this county.”

Doherty said his opposition to the hearing examiner appointment “has nothing to do with politics.”

The half-time hearing examiner position originally had been combined with a half-time court commissioner position that Nichols had expected to take.

That was until District Court Judge Rick Porter and Superior Court Judges George L. Wood, Erik Rohrer and Chris Melly — the former hearing examiner — wrote a letter Thursday to the board saying they had not understood that the court-commissioner job, which McEntire had talked to them about filling with Nichols, consisted of a half-time position.

On Tuesday, Doherty repeatedly asked what McEntire talked to the judges about.

“What was the proposal? Was it in writing or was it just verbal?” Doherty asked.

“It was not in writing, and there’s no reason to further discuss the matter,” McEntire responded.

“You got your story, you got your headline, you got your political point made.

“Let’s move on.”

During Tuesday’s meeting, attorneys Teresa Ann Neudorfer, Mark Mullins, Harry Gasnick and Ron Richards, also a former county commissioner, criticized the hiring of Nichols without advertising for the position.

Richards likened the move to the June 24 Port of Port Angeles commissioners’ hiring of former Port Executive Director Jeff Robb as port director of environmental affairs on the same day that Robb resigned as executive director and at the same $138,000 salary he had earned as director.

“To me, this reeks of open meetings violations,” Richards said.

“I would urge you to go back and do this correctly.”

Commissioners voted by motion to hire Nichols on Jan. 27, the same day he resigned as deputy prosecuting attorney. He had been serving as acting prosecuting attorney.

Two hours before Nichols was appointed, William Payne was sworn in as prosecuting attorney, an appointment both lawyers had sought.

If Nichols had stopped working for the county, he would have had a “break in service,” or employment, with the county, Jones said.

Nichols’ immediately would have been eligible for 480 hours of unused vacation and sick leave and would have had to receive a payout of more than $30,000, Jones said.

“That should be nowhere near the top priority,” Doherty said in a later interview.

McEntire had cited the break-in-service issue at the Jan. 27 meeting.

Nichols, who was not at the commissioners’ meeting, said Tuesday he has seven or eight years of experience working for the county on land-use matters in civil cases and before the state Shoreline Hearings Board.

Doherty said Nichols played “a huge part” in an age and disability discrimination case filed by four former prosecuting attorney’s office employees against Nichols and former Prosecuting Attorney Deborah Kelly, who resigned in December.

The case resulted in the accusers receiving a $1.6 million settlement with the county, all but $100,000 of which was paid by the county’s insurance risk pool.

Nichols, who was in charge of office personnel, said he was “a loyal lieutenant to the elected prosecutor” who was delegated by her to follow through with her policies.

“I think the criticism is misplaced because I was simply discharging the duties of my position,” he said.

Nichols added that he is “strongly considering” filing to run for county prosecuting attorney during May 12-16 filing week for the August primaries before the November general election.

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Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5060, or at pgottlieb@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: February 04. 2014 6:57PM
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