PORT ANGELES — The race for Clallam County prosecuting attorney heated up at an election forum Tuesday.
The hourlong program featured incumbent one-term Republican Mark Nichols and former county Treasurer Selinda Barkhuis, the challenger who filed with no party preference.
It was sponsored by the Port Angeles Business Association before a packed breakfast meeting audience of more than 45 people.
As candidates in a partisan race, the two will be on the Aug. 7 primary election ballot, which will be sent to registered voters in three weeks, on July 18, but both will automatically proceed to the Nov. 6 general election.
Barkhuis challenged Nichols on several fronts, including a 2016 suit against her by Clallam County over a public records dispute, a lawsuit against the county in 2012 that involved Nichols, and a 2017 lawsuit by his former employee against Nichols himself.
The 2016 lawsuit grew from a Peninsula Daily News public records request for county and personal-account emails Barkhuis had written in her capacity as county treasurer to Dale Wilson, publisher of the free Port Angeles publication Port O Call. Barkhuis was writing articles for the publication in her capacity as treasurer. Wilson is now running for a county commissioner seat.
The lawsuit was dismissed less than a week after it was filed at the request of the county commissioners.
Nichols said the lawsuit “was about transparency and the requirement for government to be transparent.”
He said “there was a refusal” to turn over the records.
Nichols said she eventually complied with the public records request.
“I was named person of the year [by Port O Call] and then I got sued,” Barkhuis said.
“I want to, as prosecutor, get down to the bottom of how the county administers lawsuits.”
The candidates also were asked about the impact of public records laws on private citizens who serve on county advisory boards.
“Anybody who participates in the conduct of public business is subject to the rules of public records,” Barkhuis said.
Nichols agreed with Barkhuis that citizen board members should keep separate email accounts for public business.
He did not address a $1.6 million settlement — $100,000 came from the county, the rest, insurance — in the 2012 lawsuit, when he was chief deputy prosecuting attorney.
The settlement was paid to resolve employee age and disability claims against Nichols and then-county Prosecuting Attorney Deborah Kelly.
Kelly and Nichols denied the claims.
A former office manager at the prosecuting attorney’s office filed the ongoing 2017 federal complaint against Nichols.
It alleges Nichols sexually harassed Tina Hendrickson between April 2015 and April 2017, while Nichols was prosecuting attorney, and that she was denied a raise because she rejected his repeated “romantic and sexual overtures.”
An investigator hired by the county determined Nichols made romantic overtures to her but did not create the “intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment” that is a basis for sexual harassment claims.
Nichols has denied Hendrickson’s allegation of wrongdoing.
The trial was delayed from Oct. 16 to Dec. 11 after Nichols successfully argued that he would be too busy campaigning.
Nichols, whose duties include ex-officio coroner, said during his tenure his office has increased felony case filings by more than 10 percent.
If re-elected, he said he will look into establishing a mental health court.
He said he has not had time to carry a trial caseload, asserting his duties are “fairly complicated.”
Nichols said he devotes much of his attention to administrative duties. “I have learned it pays off to pay attention to your people, to keep your workforce well-trained, to keep them happy, to keep them mentally and physically happy.”
He said he hopes to prosecute cases “at least part-time” if he is re-elected.
“He has had time to pursue his office manager, which he doesn’t deny,” Barkhuis responded.
Barkhuis, a nonpracticing, licensed attorney, said she was a private-practice lawyer for six or seven years after moving to Clallam County in 1995 to practice law and raise her son.
She said she would actively prosecute cases if elected and would be an active guardian of taxpayers’ interests as she was as treasurer.
She also criticized personnel growth in the prosecuting attorney’s office, which Nichols said was largely covered by increased revenue from municipal court services agreements with Port Angeles and Sequim.
Barkhuis quit her position as treasurer in December 2017 with a year left on her second four-year term, citing “health issues resulting from work-related stress” after announcing her impending departure 10 months earlier because of stress.
Barkhuis had taken a medical leave of absence after a dispute with the 2015 county commissioners over the disbursement of $1.3 million in Opportunity Fund grants.
Nichols “set me up for a lawsuit to release those funds based on an administrative loophole,” she said.
“Nichols is the champion of administrative loopholes.”
Nichols and Barkhuis said they would both serve full four-year terms if elected.
Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.