PORT ANGELES — Clallam County Commissioners have appointed Richard Meyer as the “interim Department of Community Development administrative manager” to temporarily replace Mary Ellen Winborn while they begin an expedited process to appoint a replacement prior to the Nov. 8 general election.
Meyer is a former code enforcement officer who most recently served as a supervising analyst for the board of commissioners, working on such projects as the Board of Equalization, COVID-19 federal funding and broadband expansion.
“I appreciate it. This gives me a much greater level of confidence,” Meyer said.
“I am flattered and humbled. I will help the department through the transition.”
Winborn, an elected official, moved to Mississippi in May, but says she remains a resident of Clallam County. Her term ends Dec. 31. Her salary is $101,000 annually. She has said she has been visiting the county one day a month and was working remotely until a restraining order was imposed.
On Thursday, Superior Court Judge Lauren Erickson granted a temporary restraining order filed by Prosecuting Attorney Mark Nichols and set another hearing for Aug. 11.
The order cites Clallam County’s concern that it could face “immediate injury” if Winborn were to continue in her role as an elected DCD director since any actions she takes in that capacity could be voided, given that she had canceled her voter registration.
Winborn had said that she was seeking protection and plans to re-register.
“It’s the reality of state law and is well established. If an elected official cancels their voter registration, then their seat is vacated immediately. It’s an automatic trigger, and whatever the person’s intent when doing it doesn’t really matter,” said county commissioner Mark Ozias.
“The most immediate implication is legally the county has no community development director. So any of those actions are null and void,” he said.
Ozias said Monday that a three- to five-person committee would develop a process for producing one or more recommendations to fill the vacancy on a temporary basis.
Nichols said he wanted to check whether the Clallam County charter would indeed allow the newly elected community development director to take office immediately after the election results are certified or if that would have to wait until January.
The county faces potential liability for any actions Winborn might take while acting as community development director, so a restraining order preventing her from taking any further action was necessary, Ozias said.
“We are fortunate we have four candidates on the ballot and Nov. 8 will be here before we know it. (Meyer’s appointment) will give us foundational stability when voters choose a new director,” Ozias said.
Commissioner Bill Peach said: “In my mind, with everything going on, we are going to need guidance. This is very necessary.”
Ozias said it’s possible the newly elected person might want some flexibility, so they will extend Meyer’s appointment to the end of the year or when the newly elected person is ready to take office.
He said it was not appropriate to appoint any of the four community development director candidates who are on the ballot.
Ozias said given the short time frame plus the budget and staff issues, it was better to identify an internal person to step into such a challenging position.
“We considered other alternatives. I’m thrilled. I can’t think of anyone I’d rather ask,” he said.
After the court rules on Winborn’s status, commissioners can name an interim director until the election, Ozias said.
“It will be three months at most. This is probably the best solution,” said commissioner Randy Johnson.
Said Peach: “I appreciate the quality of his work. This is fair to the public and the department.”
Said Ozias: “There’s no one better. I can only imagine how upsetting this has been. The situation is really unfortunate. I have no ability to understand why she canceled her voter registration, but none of that actually matters.”
Ozias said after the meeting that if Winborn submits her resignation, the county won’t have to go through with the court action.
“If you are listening, I would encourage you to give that consideration,” he said.
Winborn continuing to serve as community development director after canceling her voter registration created a “significant amount of liability” since everything she did after that point is invalid, he said.
“It doesn’t matter what anyone thinks. This is one of those rare instances when the law is clear,” Ozias said.
The commissioners also were told Winborn’s action was “incurable,” meaning reinstating her voter registration won’t fix the problem.
“Nobody is comfortable doing what they need to do. But this provides her with due process that state law doesn’t have. I hope we get a letter of resignation. Then we can get clarity,” Ozias said.
Reached by phone in Mississippi, Winborn said if the commissioners had spoken with her and worked things out, none of this would have happened.
“I am a member of the (Address Confidentiality Program),” Winborn said.
“Once I get my paperwork, I will have my voter registration. I have to register to vote through (ACP) because it is through the Secretary of State. I also need to change my driver’s license.”
Winborn has said she sought the protection of the program because someone had inquired about her voter registration and she thought she was being stalked.
“Everything that is under my control to do, I will do. I’m still a resident of Clallam County,” Winborn said this week.
“Saying I’ve moved to Mississippi is not helpful.
“Once I get my paperwork, I will fill it out and send it back to them. I’m going to mail it express mail.”
Winborn said hopefully her ACP paperwork will arrive relatively soon. She said she should have probably enrolled in the program first before canceling her voter registration if she had known that is what she needed to do.
“I’m still trying to resolve it. They started the court action. I work for the citizens, not the board of commissioners, although right now I’m restrained.
“I’ve not moved permanently. I planned to move in January 2023, but my house sold. I have not moved to Mississippi permanently. I’m still a resident of Clallam County. I have not lost my eligibility to vote, and I will have my voter registration as soon as possible,” she said.
Winborn was elected Community Development Director in November 2014 and reelected in November 2018. Clallam County’s DCD chief is the only one not appointed in the nation.
Reporter Brian Gawley can be reached at email@example.com.