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In re Recall of Riddle

Supreme Court of Washington

October 26, 2017

In the Matter of the Recall of JANELLE RIDDLE, Yakima County Clerk.

         ORDER AMENDING OPINION

          It is hereby ordered that the following change be made to the unanimous opinion . of Yu, J., in the above entitled case (page and line references are to the slip opinion filed on October 26, 2017):

         On page 1, at line 10, the following language is deleted: ", defeating incumbent Kim Eaton".

         EN BANC

          YU, JUDGE

         Yakima County Clerk Janelle Riddle appeals the trial court's ruling that five out of the six recall charges filed against her are factually and legally sufficient. We granted the recall petitioners' motion for accelerated review and now affirm the trial court.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Riddle was elected on November 4, 2014, defeating incumbent Kim Eaton. Riddle executed her oath of office on December 29 and began her term on January 1, 2015. Riddle's term in office has been a challenging one.

         Riddle attributes many of the challenges she has faced to Yakima County's early adoption of new case management software called Odyssey. Yakima County had received approval to be "an early adopter site" for Odyssey about a year before Riddle's election. Yakima County Superior Court Local Administrative Rule (LAR) 2.1. Odyssey was deemed necessary to replace Yakima's "obsolete" calendaring software, which posed "a threat to the [Superior] Court's continuing ability to operate." Id. Odyssey was implemented in November 2015, nearly one year after Riddle took office. Although most of the early adopter sites for Odyssey encountered some difficulties in its implementation, the Yakima County Clerk's Office had the most difficulty making the transition.

         Another source of difficulty for Riddle has been her ongoing disagreement with other Yakima County officials, particularly the superior court judges, about the scope of Riddle's powers and duties as clerk. This disagreement prompted the Yakima County Superior Court to pass five new local administrative rules regarding the powers and duties of the clerk on an emergency basis pursuant to GR 7(e). LAR 3, 7, 8, 9, 10. Riddle contends that those rules are void because they conflict with state law and violate separation-of-powers principles.

         In May 2017, about two and a half years into Riddle's four-year term, the recall petitioners (attorneys Rickey Kimbrough, Robert Young, Bruce Smith, and Richard Johnson) filed a statement of charges against Riddle. Briefly, the charges allege that Riddle failed to transmit court orders as required by statute, refused to perform in-court duties and threatened to shut down the Yakima County Superior Court, and failed to properly collect and account for clerk's office revenue. The facts underlying each charge are discussed as relevant to the analysis below.

         As required by RCW 29A.56.130, the Yakima County Prosecuting Attorney's Office drafted a ballot synopsis based on the charges and petitioned for a ruling on the sufficiency of the charges and the ballot synopsis in Yakima County Superior Court. The court ruled that five of the six charges were factually and legally sufficient and approved an amended ballot synopsis that states, in full, as follows:

BALLOT SYNOPSIS
The charges that Yakima County Clerk, Janelle Riddle, committed misfeasance, malfeasance and/or violated her oath of office allege she:
1.Failed, between October 2015 and November 2016, to properly and timely transmit to [the Department of Social and Health Services], Division of Child Support, orders of child support entered in Yakima County Superior Court, resulting in substantial loss of revenue to the County and harm to parents;
2.Failed, between February 2016 and October 2016 to properly discharge her duty to timely transmit to law enforcement agencies restraining orders entered in Yakima County Superior Court;
3.Refused and/or failed in July 2016 to perform in-court duties required by law, and threatened to shut down or close the Yakima County Superior Court and Yakima County Clerk's Office;
4.Failed, between January 2015 and December 2016 to properly maintain account of the monies received by the Yakima County Clerk's Office; and
5. Failed, between May 2016 and October 2016 to enact procedures to collect for jury services rendered to other courts resulting in a delay of revenue.
Should Janelle Riddle be recalled from office based on these charges?

         Clerk's Papers (CP) at 2442.

         Riddle appealed the sufficiency of those five charges to this court pursuant to RCW 29A.56.270. The insufficient charge is not at issue. We affirm the trial court and hold that all five of the remaining charges in the amended ballot synopsis are factually and legally sufficient and the recall proceeding may move forward.

         ISSUES

         A. Are the five remaining charges factually and legally sufficient to move forward in accordance with RCW 29A.56.140?

         B. Is the amended ballot synopsis adequate?

         BACKGROUND LAW AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Washington voters have a constitutional right to recall any nonjudicial elected official who "has committed some act or acts of malfeasance or misfeasance while in office, or who has violated his[ or her] oath of office." CONST, art. I, § 33. The statutes governing recall proceedings are RCW 29A.56.110-.270. See CONST, art. I, § 34.

         The courts act solely as gatekeepers in the recall process. Our role is "to ensure that the recall process is not used to harass public officials by subjecting them to frivolous or unsubstantiated charges." In re Recall of West, 155 Wn.2d 659, 662, 121 P.3d 1190 (2005). It is up to the voters to determine whether the charges are true and, if so, whether they actually justify recalling the official. Courts therefore take all factual allegations as true. In re Recall of Boldt, 187 Wn.2d 542, 549, 386 P.3d 1104 (2017). '"The sufficiency of a recall petition is reviewed de novo.'" Id. (quoting In re Recall of Wasson, 149 Wn.2d 787, 791, 72 P.3d 170 (2003)).

         A charge is factually sufficient where the alleged facts, taken as a whole, '"identify to the electors and to the official being recalled acts or failure to act which without justification would constitute a prima facie showing of misfeasance, malfeasance, or a violation of the oath of office.'" Id. at 548 (quoting Chandler v. Otto, 103 Wn.2d 268, 274, 693 P.2d 71 (1984)). A charge "is legally sufficient if it' state[s] with specificity substantial conduct clearly amounting to misfeasance, malfeasance or violation of the oath of office.'" Id. at 549 (alteration in original) (quoting Chandler, 103 Wn.2d at 274). "Misfeasance, " "malfeasance" and "violation of the oath of office" are statutorily defined:

(1) "Misfeasance" or "malfeasance" in office means any wrongful conduct that affects, interrupts, or interferes with the performance of official duty;
(a) Additionally, "misfeasance" in office means the performance of a duty in an improper manner; and
(b) Additionally, "malfeasance" in office means the commission of an unlawful act;
(2) "Violation of the oath of office" means the neglect or knowing failure by an elective public officer to perform faithfully a duty imposed by law.

RCW 29A.56.110. When applying these statutory definitions, we have held that "[a]n appropriate exercise of discretion does not constitute grounds for recall." Boldt, 187 Wn.2d at 549. Moreover, where the charge alleges the commission of an unlawful act, "the petitioner must show facts indicating the official had knowledge of and intent to commit an unlawful act." Id.

         ANALYSIS

         Riddle's contentions reflect a misunderstanding of the respective roles of the courts and the voters in the recall process. We affirm the trial court's ruling that each charge is factually and legally sufficient to move on to the signature-gathering phase of the recall ...


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