Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy today vetoed a County Council decision to eliminate Superior Court Judge Michael Hecht’s seat.
prosecuting attorney’s office, which found the council did not have the authority to eliminate Hecht’s post. McCarthy also cited what she said was the council’s improper use of an emergency ordinance to cut the post.
The council voted Nov. 3 to eliminate Hecht’s seat. The move came a day after Hecht announced his resignation following his conviction for felony harassment and paying a man for sex.
The council vote also set aside Hecht’s remaining 2009 compensation – about $19,000 – for pro tem judges to hear cases in his absence. Hecht spent most of this year on administrative leave and hasn’t been hearing cases.
Council members said cutting Hecht’s seat would give the county more flexibility as it tries to balance its budget. And they said the addition of a state-funded commissioner in 2010 would give Superior Court more manpower to handle cases.
The council move drew swift criticism from the local bar association. And it prompted an opinion from the prosecuting attorney’s office that found the council action illegal. The opinion found that the Legislature created the seat, so only the Legislature can eliminate it. It also found the budget ordinance the council used was not the proper means to eliminate the post.
McCarthy cited those same issues in vetoing the council’s decision. She also criticized the use of an emergency ordinance that allowed the council to skip regular public notice of its intention.
“This ordinance was enacted in haste without any input from the public or other branches of government,” she wrote in the veto letter. “Contrary to the finding of the Council, there was no emergency that justified denying the public – including the bench and the Bar – the right to have meaningful input on this important issue affecting the people’s access to the courts.”
The effect of McCarthy’s veto was not immediately clear.
The council has 30 days to overturn the veto, if it chooses. It voted 7-0 to eliminate Hecht’s job. It would need five votes to overturn the executive’s veto.
Also up in the air: whether McCarthy will veto the 2010 budget the council approved last week. The budget includes a provision eliminating Hecht’s seat for next year. It also contains other provisions that McCarthy has expressed concerns about.
Update: Two County Council members – Chairman Roger Bush, R-Graham, and Terry Lee, R-Gig Harbor – said they need to study McCarthy’s letter before deciding how to proceed.
Bush said the county charter gives the council the power to set policy and approve the budget. He said the council was within its power to eliminate Hecht’s post, and he said council lawyers agree.
“We were elected to set policy and balance the budget,” Bush said. “We’re confident we’re representing the people who elected us.”
Lee hopes the veto will force the executive, council and Superior Court judges to have a broader conversation “about what are the real issues here?”
The council has been keenly interested in reducing a backlog of Superior Court cases that forces the county to spend money to keep people awaiting trial in jail. Council members have questioned whether the independently elected judges are equally committed to reducing the backlog.
“I think there’s a feeling we’re ignored,” Lee said. “We think it’s a big deal to us. We think it’s a bid deal to our budget. We sometimes get lip service as to how effectively we can work together.”
Lee said a veto could spark a conversation that “will result in a better relationship with Superior Court.”