PORT ANGELES — Questions about who sued former Treasurer Selinda Barkhuis dominated the discussion when Clallam County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Nichols and Barkhuis, his challenger, spoke at a League of Women Voters forum.
Nichols and Barkhuis face each other on the Nov. 6 general election ballot.
They spent much of their time at the Wednesday forum discussing whether Nichols was the one who sued Barkhuis. They were asked so many times about that topic that the moderator stopped allowing questions on the topic.
Throughout the forum Wednesday night Barkhuis argued that Nichols sued her over public records while she served as the elected treasurer in 2016. She resigned in 2017 citing “health reasons resulting from work-related stress.”
When asked whether Clallam County — the plaintiff on the lawsuit — initiated the legal action, Barkhuis said it was Nichols who filed the lawsuit.
“It most definitely is the lawyer who files the lawsuit,” she said. “It wasn’t anybody in the county commissioners’ office. It was the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office that threatened to sue me.”
Nichols said it’s important not to confuse the attorney who signs the paperwork with the client.
“It is very important to understand why that particular lawsuit was filed and it stemmed from the fact that Ms. Barkhuis refused to follow the laws of the state of Washington and the guidance provided by our Supreme Court,” Nichols said.
“[This] exposed the county and taxpayers to liability. A simple compliance with the law would have alleviated all of that.”
The civil action — Clallam County vs. Selinda Barkhuis and Peninsula Daily News — asked a judge to determine whether the county complied with its statutory obligations under the Public Records Act when it processed a Nov. 25 request from the PDN for certain emails from Barkhuis’ work and personal accounts.
Barkhuis had notified the county that she did not intend to provide the county with any records.
At the request of the Clallam County commissioners, a Superior Court judge dismissed the lawsuit.
Two commissioners at the time said the board never authorized the lawsuit or discussed it in an open session. All three commissioners later apologized to Nichols and his staff, saying that it had been authorized in open session.
Barkhuis said she was sued because she was “whistleblowing” and that the county attempted to hold her liable for providing records directly to the PDN.
“A simple review of Nissen vs. Pierce County reveals the process to be followed when a government employee receives a request for public records that are generated on their personal email server; I think we’ve seen this play out at the national level actually,” Nichols said.
“You can’t shield from public disclosure from records by transacting them on your personal email account. There’s a very simple process to follow to ensure due process for the government employee … and to allow for transparency as to the requester.”
Other questions centered around Nichols’ experience as a defendant in court. He is named as the defendant in a federal civil sexual harassment lawsuit brought by a longtime friend and former office manager.
Nichols said an independent investigation found no wrongdoing on his part. He has asked for the case to be dismissed and a decision is expected in the coming days.
In March, a U.S. District Court judge postponed the trial from Oct. 16 to Dec. 11.
During the forum the two candidates were asked about ideas they had that they could employ if elected.
Nichols said he would like to establish a mental health court. He said many of the agencies needed are already doing much of the work and that their efforts could be redirected to work in unison.
Barkhuis said that after legislation passed this year that prevents courts from charging fees to indigent defendants, there is little money to implement ideas.
“That loss of money is going to be a real problem with moving forward with ideas,” she said. “First of all we have to resolve the issue of how we’re going to pay for …”
She said she would work with the judiciary on therapeutic courts.
Nichols said when he first took office in 2014 the county was “grossly out of compliance” with the involuntary treatment act.
“I went to work tasking my office and was personally involved in bringing our jurisdiction into compliance with the requirements of the ITA act. We worked aggressively with [Peninsula Behavioral Health], [Olympic Medical Center] and stakeholders to accomplish that.”
Reporter Jesse Major can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56250, or at [email protected].