More than a year of disputes between Yakima County Clerk Janelle Riddle and county commissioners has escalated with a lawsuit by Riddle accusing commissioners of violating public meeting laws.
In the suit filed in Benton County Superior Court, Riddle said commissioners failed to follow open meetings laws last month when they suspended her weekend and evening access to the courthouse.
The lawsuit accuses commissioners Mike Leita, Rand Elliott and Kevin Bouchey of making the decision during a “concealed” meeting in which Riddle wasn’t invited nor the public notified. Under state law, the public is to be notified when two or more commissioners meet, and decisions are to be made in public.
On March 28, Leita suspended Riddle’s ability to access the courthouse after business hours and on weekends after she allowed her private attorney into her office on March 19, a Saturday, after commissioners had warned her not to do so.
Riddle hired the attorney, Joseph Thomas of Renton, to assess the legality of an agreement made by her predecessor that requires some of her deputy clerks to also work for Yakima County Superior Court. She has previously indicated she’d like to break the agreement.
That proposal and other issues have put her at odds with commissioners and judges, who have appointed a blue ribbon panel to examine how she is running the office that she was elected to in November 2014.
Riddle did not respond to requests to comment on the lawsuit.
I’m dismissive of this claim, this lawsuit, but we will be defending ourselves. It’s just unfortunate that this all comes at the expense of the taxpayers.
Commissioner Mike Leita
Under county policy, commissioners have authority over employee access to the courthouse.
Leita made the move during a routine Monday meeting where commissioners review items to be placed on the agenda of the regular business meeting, typically held the following Tuesday.
Disputing the merits of the lawsuit, Chief Civil Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Don Anderson said Leita made the decision without a vote.
As board chairman, Leita has the authority to suspend anyone’s access without a formal public action when it involves a policy violation over which commissioners have direct authority, Anderson said.
“He could have done that by way of an email,” Anderson said Monday. “It’s not as though there was any vote. It wasn’t as though it took formal action.”
Anderson also said the Monday meetings to review agenda items don’t violate open public meeting laws because they are publicized on the county’s website under the commissioners’ weekly calendar and action isn’t taken at them.
“They’re not hiding the fact that they’re meeting every Monday morning,” he added.
Riddle’s lawsuit seeks to void any action taken during the Monday meetings, a $100 civil penalty for each meeting held in violation of open public meeting laws, an injunction preventing such meetings from occurring and attorney fees.
Leita said he’s confused by the lawsuit and that commissioners have always abided by the open public meetings act.
“I’m dismissive of this claim, this lawsuit, but we will be defending ourselves,” Leita said Monday. “It’s just unfortunate that this all comes at the expense of the taxpayers. For that I am sad on behalf of the taxpayers.”
Editor's note: This report has been updated to say only Janelle Riddle did not respond to a request to comment. Her attorney Joseph Thomas was not contacted by the newspaper for a response.