Clallam County commissioners debate sparked over hiring of Nichols as hearing examiner

By Paul Gottlieb
Peninsula Daily News

PORT ANGELES — A dispute among Clallam County commissioners over the Jan. 27 hiring of Mark Nichols as a half-time hearing examiner erupted into a heated argument Monday between Commissioners Mike Chapman and Mike Doherty.

Meanwhile, Nichols said Monday he has learned that he won’t, at least for the time being, be paid the half-time, $5,475-a-month District and Superior court commissioner salary he thought he would receive Jan. 27.

It was to be part of what would have been a full-time position consisting of the two half-time slots.

Nichols thought he would be earning $118,164 annually.

Now he will make $52,464 as a hearing examiner.

He also will make $75 an hour as one of eight court commissioners filling in on the bench less than once a week, Superior Court Clerk Lindy Clevenger said.

Commissioners approved funding for the court commissioner position and appointed Nichols hearing examiner on Jan. 27, with Chapman and Commissioner Jim McEntire in favor and Doherty opposed.

Superior Court Judge George L. Wood appointed Nichols court commissioner that same day.

McEntire had told Wood, Superior Court Judges Chris Melly and Erik Rohrer, and District Court Judges Rick Porter and John Doherty that he intended to nominate Nichols as hearing examiner.

But Wood, Porter Melly and Rohrer told county commissioners in a letter Thursday, just three days later, that the hiring process for court commissioner should be subject to “a process which considers all candidates.”

The said they had thought the court commissioner position would be combined with the hearing examiner position and not be funded separately on a half-time basis.

Nichols said Monday he would apply for the court commissioner position if it is advertised.

“I am aware that is their desire,” Nichols said Monday of the judges’ intentions.

“For the time being, those are the practicalities of life.”

Commissioners are scheduled to sign a resolution appointing Nichols to the hearing examiner position at their regular meeting that begins at 10 a.m. today at the county Courthouse.

Doherty cited the judges’ letter Monday to buttress his position that the hearing examiner position should be part of an open-hiring process, too.

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

“I am just asking that we start over.”

Chapman asserted that acting county Prosecuting Attorney William Payne had said the commissioners did nothing wrong.

Doherty, McEntire and Payne, who cited “attorney-client privilege,” would not release a copy of the letter.

During the approximately hour-long discussion Monday, Chapman became progressively more upset.

“Respect what I say or not, but do not accuse me of doing something wrong when the prosecutor says I didn’t do that,” Chapman said at one point, raising his voice.

“I’m quite offended.

“My God, man, what do you want from us,” Chapman said, throwing up his hands.

Doherty’s was the lone dissenting vote Jan. 27 when commissioners hired Nichols to the hearing examiner position.

Doherty objected to hiring the former county chief deputy prosecutor without the county advertising for the position, which did not have a job description but had been filled by Melly.

That’s exactly what the judges said they will do to fill the half-time court commissioner position.

“Upon further reflection, we feel strongly that the portion of the court commissioner position that will be allocated to the courts needs to be selected by a process which considers all potential candidates,” the judges wrote.

“If the hired hearing examiner applied for and was selected to the court commissioner position, we would be committed to working out a schedule that insures that the individual could fulfill both responsibilities,” they wrote.

“We look forward to ensuring that a selection process for this refunded position is followed so that the citizens of Clallam County have the best judicial officers possible.”

Doherty said the motion “to create an employee with two positions” was invalidated by the judges’ letter.

“Half of that motion is no longer effective,” Doherty said, adding that the transcript of the Jan. 27 meeting should be closely examined.

But county Administrator Jim Jones said the motion and the Jan. 27 discussion doesn’t matter.

“The resolution is the document that matters, not what happened in the discussion and the motion,” he said.

The resolution, Jones added, “is the legal document.”

Nichols, the acting prosecuting attorney for 27 days following Deborah Kelly’s retirement, resigned from the prosecuting attorney’s office after commissioners Jan. 14 selected Payne over him as prosecuting attorney.

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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 03. 2014 6:32PM
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