PORT ANGELES — The Clallam County treasurer has no legal reason to delay paying $1.3 million from the Opportunity Fund to support a composites recycling center and a waterfront park, the county prosecutor has decided.
In a 16-page written memorandum released Wednesday, Prosecuting Attorney Mark Nichols concluded county Treasurer Selinda Barkhuis “has a mandatory duty” to release the money, despite her contention that the grants had received too little public scrutiny — namely, no formal public hearings.
Barkhuis responded in an email to the Peninsula Daily News that she would defy Nichols’ memorandum and that she had sought intervention by state Attorney General Rob Ferguson.
The Attorney General’s Office had no information about the request as of Wednesday afternoon.
She called the grants “unauthorized gifts of public funds. . . .”
“Once these funds leave the county treasury, they will be lost forever for use by Clallam County,” she said.
“The county Treasurer will continue to reject these warrants until such time as she is ordered otherwise in writing by either the Clallam County Superior Court or the state Attorney General.”
The nub of Nichols’ opinion was that the allocations were legal because the county had funds to cover them.
That might not have been the case had the Carlsborg sewer project drawn down the $10.2 million Opportunity Fund by the $9.2 million originally set aside for it.
But because delaying the project required only $100,000 this year, the county could cover its $1 million grant to the Port of Port Angeles’ Composite Recycling Technology Center at William R. Fairchild International Airport and $285,952 for phase 2 of a city of Port Angeles downtown waterfront face-lift.
Barkhuis maintained in her email the county remains obligated to the Carlsborg project.
She was not at her office in the Clallam County Courthouse on Wednesday and did not attend Tuesday’s meeting, where commissioners voted to authorize the grants.
Her staff said they did not know if she had discussed Nichols’ memo with him, although Nichols said she had not answered his emails and in-person requests to do so.
In his memo, researched by Civil Deputy Prosecutor Brian Wendt, Nichols said the Opportunity Fund could cover the grants as the sewer project would not need the funds in 2015.
Furthermore, the prosecutor said the grants did not require public hearings under state law, the Clallam County Charter or the county administrative code.
Ratified in public meet
While Nichols said commissioners “unfortunately” did not give advance explanation to the treasurer and auditor about terminating the Carlsborg sewer allocation and caught them off guard, he noted that commissioners had ratified the decision in a public meeting.
It came after a two-hour public enquiry into the recycling center request by the Opportunity Fund Advisory Board.
Port commissioners and City Council members publicly approved their respective grant applications, and county commissioners delayed approving the grants while they discussed them at several public meetings, the memo said.
The commissioners’ action tripped neither the state laws Barkhuis cited in her email nor the four county administrative policies that Barkhuis claimed required a hearing.
The allocations also did not call for the “written contract” she insisted was necessary, Nichols added.
Moreover, he said, the process that commissioners followed had the informal approval of the state Auditor’s Office, and it was common practice among other counties, including Clark, Cowlitz, Ferry, King, Kittitas, Klickitat, Pacific, Spokane and Yakima.
After delaying the Carlsborg project, “the county should be able to put these moneys to their highest and best use,” Nichols wrote.
Barkhuis’ demand for a hearing, he said, “would slow down the government’s ability to respond to changing conditions.”
Given County Auditor Shoona Riggs’ approval of the warrants, “the treasurer has a ministerial duty to honor the same because the warrants will have been issued according to the law,” Nichols’ memorandum stated.
“The Clallam County Charter vests the Board of County Commissioners with the powers of the purse.
“The treasurer is responsible for the daily operations of cash management and investment. . . . It is the auditor who has the lawful standing to contest a budget amendment — not the treasurer.”
However, Nichols observed in a footnote, “You can never have too much public process.”
He also called Barkhuis “an ardent champion of the right of taxpayers to participate in the budget process.”
Nevertheless, “while the prosecuting attorney’s office commends the treasurer’s efforts to involve the public, the fact remains that there is no legal requirement to hold a public hearing.”
The memo concluded: “The board may amend its 2015 fiscal plan via a modification to release the $1.3 million to the city and the port.
“While a public hearing may be desired by many, it is not required in [this] case.”
Reporter James Casey can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5074, or at [email protected]