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County officials are lawyering up to square off. And you’re going to pay for it

In November 2015, Franklin County Clerk Michael Killian, center, watches deputy clerks work on the new Odyssey electronics record system. Last week, the Benton-Franklin Superior Court judges sued Killian after he stopped maintaining physical files and took court records totally paperless.
In November 2015, Franklin County Clerk Michael Killian, center, watches deputy clerks work on the new Odyssey electronics record system. Last week, the Benton-Franklin Superior Court judges sued Killian after he stopped maintaining physical files and took court records totally paperless. Tri-City Herald

Franklin County taxpayers can expect to pay thousands of dollars in legal bills in the case pitting Tri-City judges against the county clerk.

The county is responsible for paying for the private lawyers representing seven judges of the bi-county Superior Court district on one side and the Franklin County Clerk Michael Killian on the other.

With billing rates in the $200-plus an hour range, the combined daily cost of one lawyer for each side could easily pass $3,000 for an eight-hour day.

The judges sued Killian last week over his move to a paperless court records system. They want Killian, who like the judges is independently elected, to maintain physical folders.

The judges are not seeking monetary damages but attorney fees promise to add up quickly if the case goes to court.

The judges and Killian are separately represented by attorneys in Tumwater and Spokane.

The bills will go to the Franklin County Prosecutor’s Office, which would commonly would represent a county official. No bills have been submitted.

“We have not begun to figure out what the bill will be for Franklin County,” said Keith Johnson, the county’s administrator, who added that he’s hopeful the case will reach a swift conclusion.

Brad Peck, commission chairman, is less optimistic about a fast resolution. Peck notes both sides are adamant they are right.

Peck wants the case moved to state-level court since the outcome could set a precedent for Washington.

All but two Washington counties are converting to electronic records management this year, so the question of electronic versus paper records applies to the entire state. The two outliers are King and Pierce counties.

“In an ideal world, the state would take up this issue and we, Franklin County, would stop paying attorneys on each side,” he said.

Peck said there’s no question Franklin County is responsible for defending its clerk.

But the judges work for the Benton-Franklin judicial district, raising the possibility that Benton County could be asked to share in some of the financial burden of hiring an lawyer to represent them.

Benton County’s top attorney disagreed.

“I do not believe that Benton County will be paying any portion of the legal bills,” said Prosecutor Andy Miller. Benton County Clerk Josie Delvin is not being sued because her office is on the Odyssey system but has not eliminated its paper files.

The judges are represented by W. Dale Kamerrer with Law, Lyman, Daniel, Kamerrer & Bogdanovich, a Tumwater law firm. Kamerrer confirmed his hourly rate is $225. He said he does not plan to use associates or paralegals, which would added to the cost.

Killian is represented by Heather C. Yakely of Evans, Craven & Lackie in Spokane. Her hourly rate was not immediately available.

It is unusual for an entire Superior Court bench to sue a county clerk. But the tension between elected officials is not unusual, said Hugh Spitzer, professor of law at the University of Washington. Spitzer is not involved with the Killian suit and was not familiar with the details of the case.

The clerk’s job is described in state statutes while judges traditionally take the position that they alone run the justice system.

“It’s a built-in tension and it flares up once in a while,” Spitzer said.

The Killian case centers on the Washington state court system’s migration to the “Odyssey” management system. By the end of the year, 37 of Washington counties will use Odyssey, which integrates indexing, calendaring and document filing.

Franklin County migrated to the electronic system in November 2015. Killian maintained physical folders for all cases until the end of 2017.

Whether a county opts to take the final step and go totally paperless is up to the local clerk and judges, said Callie Dietz, state court administrator.

Barbara Christensen, president of the Washington Association of County Clerks and the sitting clerk for Clallam County, said the association supports Killian and will issue a formal statement on the case after it has a chance to fully review it.

Wendy Culverwell: 509-582-1514, @WendyCulverwell

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