Blue Lives Matter

Thurston County Sheriff John Snaza smiles as he greets attendees of a Blue Lives Matter rally earlier this month at Swede Hall in Rochester.

In Thurston County Superior Court Wednesday, a judge will consider whether a petition filed to recall Sheriff John Snaza from office can move to the next step of signature collection.

The voter who filed the petition, Arthur West, alleges that by refusing to criminally enforce the state's mask mandate, Snaza committed "malfeasance, misfeasance, and violation of oath of office."

Reached by phone Tuesday, Sheriff Snaza said it's "really disheartening" to see someone raise this kind of concern when he's never met him or spoken to him.

"I've always been accessible for questions," Snaza said, and he said he would've "been happy to address" his concerns. To do it this way, he said "shows it's political in nature."

On June 24, state Secretary of Health John Wiesman signed an order requiring citizens to wear face coverings in most public spaces, with a few exceptions, as part of the state's ongoing efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19. Under the order, violators could face a fine up to $100 or up to 90 days in jail.

Gov. Jay Inslee said at a press conference announcing the mandate that he anticipated broad compliance, according to previous reporting.

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"We don't want to have enforcement of this," Inslee said. "Ideally there won't be any criminal or civil sanctions for individuals."

In a statement posted to social media June 24, Thurston County Sheriff's Office said it recommended that everyone exercise "safe and precautionary measures," including "wearing masks around those in high-risk groups," but that it won't criminally enforce the state order. Deputies would instead engage with people "when appropriate" and educate them alongside public health staff, according to the statement.

"Due to the minor nature of this offense, and the possibility for a negative outcome during an enforcement encounter and various ways in which the order may be violated, it would be inappropriate for deputies to criminally enforce this mandate," the statement reads.

Several other law enforcement agencies, including the Olympia Police Department, have announced similar policies. County Prosecutor Jon Tunheim told The Olympian in an interview that he initially consulted with five local law enforcement agencies and all said they'd educate and ask for cooperation before criminally enforcing the order.

In his charge filed with the Thurston County Auditor July 2, West alleges that Snaza's "refusal to perform the duties of his office impedes State, City, emergency management, and hospital officials in their efforts to protect the public during a worldwide pandemic" and meets the bar to demand his recall.

Combined with the widespread "politicization of the mask issue," West's charge reads, the sheriff's actions "must be viewed as a political effort to undermine the rule of law and our national and statewide efforts" to combat COVID-19.

Snaza's oath of office requires adherence to the law, West writes, but he instead "in effect exercised improper veto power over the enforcement provision of a State Order in a manner that has and will encourage citizens to disregard it."

He also mentions that the sheriff issued the statement about the same time his twin brother, Lewis County Sheriff Robert Snaza, told a crowd "Don't be a sheep," seemingly encouraging people to defy the order.

"The actions of our Sheriff must be taken in the context of not only the improper statements of his twin brother, but of a nationwide improper politicization of mask wearing that seriously undercuts our nation's ability to effectively combat this dangerous pandemic," the charge reads.

After a charge like West's is submitted, state law requires the Auditor's Office to serve a copy to the officer whose recall is demanded and pass on the charge to, in this case, the county Prosecutor's Office so it can create a ballot synopsis.

Chief civil deputy prosecutor Elizabeth Petrich drafted the synopsis, Tunheim told The Olympian. Court records show that synopsis was filed in Thurston County Superior Court earlier this month -- it would appear on ballots if West's efforts are successful.

Wednesday's hearing is the next step: A judge will determine whether West's statement of charges is factually and legally sufficient to support Snaza's recall and whether the ballot synopsis is accurate.

At a county commission work session Tuesday, commissioners unanimously approved using county resources to represent the sheriff for at least this first hearing, which allows Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Rick Peters to represent him Wednesday.

Prosecutor Tunheim said there's been a "conflict wall" cutting off the two attorneys now associated with the petition. He had also OKed Peters' involvement, he said, because he thinks the main issue at play is the role and discretion of a sheriff, which separates this situation from, say, an allegation that he had intentionally violated somebody's constitutional rights.

In this case, he said, it "wouldn't be appropriate for him (the sheriff) to bear the cost of that personally."

In a court document filed July 24, Peters argues that the petition should be dismissed because criminal enforcement under the state health order is discretionary, and West didn't show the Sheriff's discretionary decision was "manifestly unreasonable," as would be required.

Peters cites the phrase "violators may be subject to criminal penalties" in the order, adding emphasis to the word "may."

Visiting Judge Jeanette Dalton could agree Wednesday and decide that the petition shouldn't go forward.

But if she finds that the charge meets the criteria for a recall, West has 180 days to file a petition with the signatures of registered Thurston County voters in the amount of at least 25 percent of total votes cast last time Snaza was on the ballot, according to a timeline from the Auditor's Office.

In this case, West would need to collect 23,027 signatures.

The Auditor's Office would then need to verify every signature before it could appear on voters' ballots.

The 9 a.m. Wednesday hearing can be attended via Zoom at meeting ID 825 5412 0752, according to court documents. Instructions for attending hearings via Zoom are available online here: https://www.thurstoncountywa.gov/sc/scdocuments/MC%20Zoom%20instructions%20updated%2007152020.pdf

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