The right of recall wins – too late to remove Washam

The News TribuneNovember 20, 2012 

Lost in the din on Election Day was a sweet little moral victory for the people who tried unsuccessfully to recall Dale Washam last year.

One of the many mini-dramas in the recall attempt was the way the Public Disclosure Commission stomped on the signature-gathering campaign before it even got started.

Robin Farris, who led the effort to unseat Pierce County’s extravagantly inept assessor-treasurer, had been getting pro bono legal assistance from two public-spirited Tacoma attorneys, Tom Oldfield and Jeff Helsdon.

Washington law allows recalls only on very narrow grounds; Oldfield and Helsdon helped Farris steer the petition through all the legal obstacles – Washam fighting all the way – until it finally won approval from the Washington Supreme Court.

The PDC, however, held that recall petitions were the legal equivalent of political campaigns rather than initiatives. Individual contributions to candidates are capped at $800 – a limit that doesn’t apply to ballot measures as constitutionally protected political expression.

The PDC initially demanded that Farris repay Oldfield and Helsdon the value of their volunteer work, estimated at $20,000. In April it settled for a fine.

The $800 limit remained in place for everyone else, making it impossible for Farris to raise enough money to mount a professional countywide campaign – the kind of campaign needed to gather the more than 65,000 signatures the law demanded in populous Pierce County.

Finally, a libertarian outfit based in Virginia, the Institute for Justice, stepped in and fought the PDC in federal court on behalf of Farris’ campaign. In July – four months into the campaign – the Institute won an injunction that let her raise more money.

Fantastic. Still, the campaign had been hobbled financially from late winter to early summer. Ultimately, it fell short of the signature requirement.

The story has a sequel, arguably more important.

The PDC challenged the July injunction, and the case wound up bouncing around the federal judiciary. On Nov. 6, Judge Robert Bryan of the U.S. District Court of Western Washington made the original injunction final and official: Recalls and elections are different animals, he held.

The ruling comes too late for Farris’ campaign. Pierce County has had to endure an extra year of Washam’s expensive antics. But the path should be much easier for the next court-approved effort to pry a loon out of office.

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