This editorial will appear in Monday’s print edition.
Incredibly, if one reads online comments, Pierce County Assessor-Treasurer Dale Washam still has supporters – apparently enough that he’s inspired to run for re-election despite costing taxpayers more than $1.4 million to handle and settle lawsuits against him and being found in violation of county ethics rules.
Perhaps the latest news will chip away at that support. On Friday, the U.S. Justice Department filed suit against the county after its year-long investigation found that Washam had violated the county employees’ civil rights (Title VII of the Civil Rights Act). He had retaliated against them after they complained about how he was running the assessor-treasurer’s office.
The lawsuit actually reflects a settlement reached between Pierce County and the Justice Department. The penalty isn’t monetary; instead, it requires that everyone in the office – including Washam and henchman Albert Ugas – undergo training within the next 60 days on correct procedures regarding employee complaints. For office staff, that training will focus on their rights and how to file complaints.
Washam and Ugas might refuse the training, and it’s unclear what action the Justice Department would take if that were to happen. So it’s good to hear that state Sen. Mike Carrell, R-Lakewood, has asked the Attorney General’s office for an opinion on what more could be done at the county level – something county officials should have done a long time ago.
There’s some thought that state law allows counties to take action – such as suspension – against a treasurer who is under investigation. Whether that extends to investigations like the ones against Washam is the question Carrell wants answered. An opinion could come from Rob McKenna’s office this summer.
If the opinion is that the county cannot act against the independently elected Washam because his actions don’t rise to criminal wrongdoing, then that is a gap in state law that the Legislature should address.
It doesn’t happen very often that an official creates the kind of liability that Washam has, but local governments need some redress when it does happen. A county shouldn’t have to keep paying for an official’s behavior while not having some way to oust him short of an election – even if it’s a suspension with pay that must pass some sort of judicial review.
If the Legislature needs a poster boy for this issue, Pierce County has one it could suggest.