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Two bound for Klickitat Co. sheriff’s race

GOLDENDALE — A candidate for Klickitat County Sheriff who was working with the Klickitat County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO), was removed from his position earlier this month by Sheriff Rick McComas.

Bob Songer, running for sheriff in this fall’s election, had been providing timber patrol services along with Harold Cole.

Both men had their commissions with KCSO revoked, effectively ending range and timber patrols by the sheriff’s office. With the withdrawal of their commissions came notice to return all county equipment and vehicles by Monday. The KCSO said it would honor and compensate remaining follow-up work by the two.

The revocation of Songer’s commission came two days after a full-page ad ran in The Goldendale Sentinel last Wednesday advertising his candidacy for sheriff. McComas and Undersheriff Marc Boardman, who later announced his is also running for sheriff, say the move was not politically motivated.

“It had to do with their contract,” Boardman said Monday. A call was placed to the KCSO asking for McComas, and Boardman returned the call on McComas’ behalf.

Boardman said Songer and Cole were retained in timber patrol duties by an annual contract between an unofficial consortium of six different organizations and the KCSO, with portions of their salaries coming from both groups.

The 2013 contract expired Dec. 31, and the two men were working so far this year without a new contract in place. Boardman said the contract had issues that could not be immediately resolved, so the sheriff pulled the men’s commissions until the matters could be settled.

“It was absolutely politically motivated, by both the sheriff and the undersheriff,” Songer said Monday. “You have to ask about the timing of this — why did it come up now, after I announced as a candidate for sheriff?”

“There’s no question that the timing of this action was unfortunate,” Boardman said. “I can see how it might look. But there was nothing at all political about it.”

Songer said if the sheriff really had an issue with the contract, he could have told the two to just stop work until further notice, without pulling their commissions with the KCSO. “That would’ve made sense,” he said.

Boardman disagreed, saying such a step would still have incurred potential liability for the sheriff.

In his letter to Songer and Cole dated Jan. 10 and sent to all parties to the contract, McComas wrote, “In preparation for updating and renewing the annual contract, it has come to my attention that the agreement to provide services may not have been in compliance with all applicable state laws. Therefore I am unable to initiate a new contract for the previously provided services.

“I [and I am sure most current and prior County Commissioners and sheriffs] recognize the need as well as the value of the program and have full intention to try to find a solution to this problem as soon as possible,” the letter continued.

Concerns over the contract arise in part from the unusual nature of its arrangement for county timber patrol services with the sheriff’s office.

Boardman said he was told it was the only arrangement of its kind anywhere in the state. He added that the Klickitat County Prosecuting Attorney, Lori Hoctor, had been asked to review the arrangement for compliance with all laws and provide a determination of whether or not it was advisable to renew the contract under existing terms.

“The Prosecuting Attorney advised the sheriff’s office last week that the contract did not meet all requirements,” Boardman said. “The sheriff decided he had to take this action until an arrangement could be made that would satisfy all compliance issues.”

The fact that this happened in the same week that Songer took out a full-page ad in The Sentinel about his candidacy, Boardman states, could not have been foreseen.

“We tried to prove that on Friday in our meeting with Bob and Harold,” he said. “There was absolutely no political motivation to dislodge Bob from his position.”

Songer said he wonders why issues with the contract happened to arise only after he first announced his candidacy for sheriff more than a year ago.

“We’d been doing this work for 13 years,” he said. “There had never, not once, been an issue with the contract in all that time—until now.”

He added that in order to disguise the true intention behind the move, the sheriff had to withdraw the commissions for both Songer and Cole.

“By shutting down the whole timber program,” he said, “the sheriff has a cover for his political motivation. Unfortunately, that leaves the cattlemen and timber companies with concerns, and it puts extra workload on the remaining deputies. It’s sad that politics had to be involved in this.”

The timing of the action, Boardman said, came as it did in response to some concerns expressed by some of the parties involved in the contract.

McComas announced on a local radio talk show that he does not intent to run for sheriff again this year.

On the same program, Undersheriff Marc Boardman said he will run for sheriff.

The men made their remarks on Julian Notestine’s radio program on KLCK. The show was taped earlier, and Haystack Broadcasting reported their statements the same day.

The signatories included Hancock Forest Management, SDS Lumber, Longview Timber Corporation, WACF TA LLC, the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, and the Livestock Association. While reference is commonly made to a single contract, actually there were two, duplicates provided separately to Songer and Cole.

“There weren’t complaints,” Boardman said, “just questions about things that were happening. I had been updating all the information on the various signers while the prosecutor worked on researching the contract. It’s a contract that’s been passed down from the previous administration.” Boardman said one of the concerns raised was “in regards to things that were seemed to be flipping through the courts, being dismissed.” He explained that sometimes criminal acts can be resolved to the satisfaction of the property owner in what’s known as civil compromise. “The civil compromise allows them to settle for money,” he said, “so if it was agreeable to the property owner, they could take cash settlement in lieu of the person being convicted of a crime. Evidently that was a means that would give quicker resolution; it would get the financial compensation to the property owner, and obviously the suspect benefits by not having something put on a criminal record. So it appeared to the property owners that some matters were just being dismissed or not handled.” While that issue wasn’t directly attributable to Songer and Cole, it was a factor in initiating a closer review of the work arrangement.

A concern was raised that did directly involve the two range deputies, and that was their hours. “It had to do with the amount of hours that they could spend over and above their contracted time,” Boardman said, “because they are contracted employees. They don’t fall under the same rules where you have protected employees.” Songer and Cole had been contracted for 160 hours per month of service for eight months out of the year and a much lower number of hours the other four months. “There was a pattern of working in excess of those 160 hours,” Boardman stated, though the additional hours by Songer and Cole were volunteered without request for compensation. “That was all done in good faith,” Boardman continued, “and the concern from the county standpoint was, are we liable for these hours that are being put in—if they were to bring it up and say, ‘Hey, pay up, we put in all these extra hours, we deserve the compensation even if it wasn’t included in the contract.’ If the hours were logged and there’s a record of it, we were liable for it. Furthermore, were we liable for the hours that were in excess of the contract amount not from a financial liability but if an injury occurred or something happened? There’s always that liability concern when it was outside the scope of the contract.”

Songer said if hours were a problem, the fix would have been simple. “Just ask us not to volunteer extra hours,” he said.

Another contract issue, Boardman stated, was the fact that Songer’s and Cole’s arrangement with the KCSO put them on a different pay and benefits par with regular deputies. “Bob brings up that the sheriff can raise his hand and swear anybody in for any kind of commission he wants,” Boardman said. “That is true, but all these laws have changed since the days of the John Wayne movies where you just do that and now you’re covered and you go on. You’ve got union contracts, you have civil service employee regulations, all these matters that have to be adhered to.” The matter was taken up with an accreditation agency, and the word back was that “you have to have some clear distinction in the role and function that these people are providing, because they’re basically undercutting—that might sound a little harsh, but they were potentially undermining interests of the regular employees if they’re doing the same thing for a fraction of the price without all the benefits and perks that go along with being a union employee.”

Once the ball got rolling on reviewing the arrangement, Boardman said it ended up in the prosecuting attorney’s court. “I’d been in contact by phone with Bob and had two meetings in my office with both Harold and Bob to make sure were on top of this and we got the various changes and amendments necessary to be in compliance,” Boardman said. He added the prosecuting attorney’s office had taken the matter to the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys. “The prosecutor put it to them, ‘Hey, we’re in a deadline crunch here, we need to get this resolved, we’ve had a contract that’s been in effect a number of years but we’re finding some errors in the contract and we need to get this cleaned up, can anybody give us some insight on this?’ They also solicited information from another legal brain trust, and the bottom line was: nobody has ever heard of the way we were doing it in Klickitat County, and it was out of compliance with the civil service requirements and our rules and regulations.”

Songer has a detailed timeline of events that he said led to Friday’s action. He states that he met with McComas on Dec. 11, 2012, to tell McComas he intended to run for sheriff in 2014 and that he was meeting with The Sentinel the next day to do an interview announcing his candidacy. He says McComas soon after asked him to push back his meeting with the newspaper so McComas could talk with him about another matter. He agreed, and on the morning of Dec. 12, 2012, Songer says McComas met with him and offered him the position of undersheriff, then about to come open. Songer turned the offer down and followed through on announcing his candidacy for sheriff.

On Feb. 12, 2013, Songer says McComas and Hoctor both signed the renewed range deputy contract with him. “At no time did Sheriff McComas voice any concerns about hours that I was donating,” he says, based on his monthly activity reports filed with the KCSO.

The sheriff employees’ and 911 dispatchers’ union endorsed Songer for sheriff on Nov. 20, 2013, and Songer considers that event another trigger in the chain of events leading to his dismissal. Songer believes that the union president, Robert Bianchi, is now paying for that endorsement in the form of performance examinations aimed at nothing more than harassment. Songer says Boardman asked to meet with Songer soon after the endorsement, and the two had a conversation at Sodbuster’s Restaurant on the morning of Dec. 4, 2013. At that meeting, Songer says Boardman disclosed his own political aspirations. Songer then asked Boardman about his contract, which was about to expire. He says Boardman told him it was under review by Hoctor, and there was a possibility that Songer might have to get recertified as a reserve deputy in order to continue to donate extra hours without issue. Songer says he then checked with Tisha Jones, a representative of the state training committee, who told him because his original training occurred prior to Jan. 1, 1978, he did not have to retake academy training and that even if he were to become recertified, a reserve deputy could not work as a range deputy and receive full pay.

Then came the meetings in January this year. Songer says at a Jan. 3 meeting, he told Boardman point blank that he believed the sheriff and the undersheriff “were trying to get rid of me for political reasons.” Boardman, Songer says, then asked why they would do that. Songer says he responded that having him out of the sheriff’s office would mean he would no longer have day-to-day contact with sheriff department employees, 911 dispatchers, ranchers, and timber company personnel as a range/timber deputy. Subsequently, Songer states, Boardman asked him if he would be willing to attend a meeting with the sheriff and the prosecuting attorney about the matter, and he agreed. When the call came to meet last Friday, Songer thought it was for such a meeting rather than the one in which his commission was pulled.

“At no point in any conversations,” Boardman reemphasized on Monday, “was there any intention to remove Bob for political reasons.”

“The public can connect the dots,” Songer said.

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