Bad blood between a Tri-City lawmaker and a Benton County commissioner boiled over in Olympia this week.
Rep. Larry Haler, R-Richland, is the sole sponsor of a nepotism bill that at least one married couple says is aimed at them: Benton County Commissioner Jerome Delvin and his wife, Josie, the elected Benton County clerk.
House Bill 2668 would bar candidates from running for public office if they have a near relative in the same agency — a situation that describes the Delvins, as well as Benton County’s father-son assessor and treasurer, Bill Spencer and Ken Spencer.
The bill is unlikely to pass out of committee by a Friday deadline. But if it does pass, it could limit Washington’s wide view of who is eligible to run for public office.
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Current law requires only that candidates must be U.S. citizens and registered to vote in the jurisdiction where they wish to serve.
Haler and Delvin testified on opposite sides of the bill when the House State Government, Elections & Information Technology Committee held a sometimes awkward hearing Wednesday.
Haler declined to talk to the Herald on Thursday about his bill but defended the move when he testified at the hearing.
He said local government officials should be subject to the same ethics rules as state government.
I’ve heard citizens complain that they can’t get things done with our county clerk because our county commissioners won’t listen.
State Rep. Larry Haler, R-Richland
“I’ve learned to appreciate our system of at least at the state level where there is no reporting relationship allowed, where you have a husband and wife, an elected husband or elected wife, reporting to each other,” he said. He suggested that the close relationships have interfered with county government.
“I’ve heard citizens complain that they can’t get things done with our county clerk because our county commissioners won’t listen,” he testified.
Haler’s office did not respond to a follow-up request for specifics.
“There has to be some sort of separation at lower forms of government so that people do not feel if they raise a ruckus that they will not be heard. In the cases that I’m referring to, that is occurring,” Haler told the Government, Elections and Information Technology Committee.
Jerome Delvin, a former state senator, took strong offense to the bill, calling it a personal attack in his testimony to the committee.
“For Mr. Haler to come up here and impugn me and my wife because we’re duly elected, I don’t accept that. I think he’s overstepped his legislative authority,” Delvin testified before the committee chair reminded him that he was violating the House rules of decorum by speculating about a lawmaker’s motivations for a bill.
Later, Delvin told the Tri-City Herald there’s a history of bad blood between the two families, possibly related to when Delvin resigned from his state senate seat after winning a his county commission post.
As a commissioner, he played a role in appointing his successor to represent the 8th Legislative District until there could be an election. Haler, one of the 8th District’s two representatives, was one of six Republicans who applied for the appointment.
“He’s always been mad at that,” he told the Herald.
In his testimony Wednesday, Haler cited several other familial pairs by office, though not by name, including Benton County’s father-son treasurer and assessor, Ken Spencer and Bill Spencer. The treasurer told the Herald he wasn’t familiar with Haler’s bill.
For Mr. Haler to come up here and impugn me and my wife because we’re duly elected, I don’t accept that. I think he’s overstepped his legislative authority.
Benton County Commissioner Jerome Delvin
Delvin agreed that Benton County has an unusually high number of family members in office, but said that’s to be expected in smaller communities where there aren’t as many people running for public office.
“If the public had an issue, they certainly would say something at the ballot box or letters to the editor or something,” Delvin said. “It’s hard to get good people to run for office.”
Though the bill focuses on people in elected office, Haler also referred to a local city manager married to a firefighter in his testimony. The reference is to Cindy Reents, Richland’s city manager. Reents is a city employee, not elected official. Her husband is now retired.
“Wow,” was her only comment on Haler’s remarks.
Jerome Delvin is serving his second term on the county commission. He ran unopposed in 2016.
Josie Delvin was appointed to the clerk position in 2006 and was elected that fall. She ran unopposed in 2014.
Assessor Bill Spencer won his current term in 2014 with 55 percent of the vote.
His father, Ken Spencer, didn’t become treasurer until he succeeded Duane Davidson last year when Davidson was elected state treasurer. Ken Spencer then ran unopposed for the position.
The full hearing on Haler’s bill can be viewed on TV Washington at bit.ly/Halerbill. The relevant video begins at 1:24.