The Lewis County Salary Commission is wondering if the Board of County Commissioners overstepped its boundaries last year when it limited the scope of the salary commission’s work, so much so that the salary commission might solicit an opinion from the Washington state Attorney General’s office.
Back in August, the Board of County Commissioners passed a resolution rescinding the salary commission’s review of pay for the auditor, assessor, clerk, coroner, prosecuting attorney and treasurer, and instead tied all those positions’ pay to a percentage of a superior court judge’s salary.
The commission still has the authority to set salaries for the county commissioners.
But now the salary commission wants to hear from either the Lewis County Prosecutor’s Office or the Attorney General’s office on if the commission ever had the authority in the first place to review salaries of those officials, if the county commissioners have legal basis to rescind that authority and if their work as a whole is just “recommendation.”
“There was no formal notice from the board of county commissioners to the Lewis County Citizen Salary Commission that they were going to take the action they did in that resolution” last August, Chair Bob Berg told The Chronicle.
The board during a Tuesday evening meeting reviewed an in-progress letter to Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s office that was drafted by salary commissioner Eric Carlson. The letter read that the commission had “strong reservations and questions” about the board’s decision and didn’t believe the county prosecutor’s office was in a “conflict-free position to offer any legal opinion on the matter whatsoever.”
But not all agreed with that assessment, specifically Berg.
Carlson said he didn’t believe Prosecutor Jonathan Meyer’s office — or any of the other elected officials — could provide an objective opinion on the board of county commissioners’ actions, given that Meyer’s salary had been reviewed back in 2020.
“I think that it’s important that, if we’re taking our position seriously, we figure out a way for someone to help us referee what the law is,” he said, noting that he wasn’t “trying to attack anyone personally.”
There have been some disagreements between Berg and Carlson on how to go about asking the attorney general’s office for an opinion; Berg said he made a “citizens inquiry,” without identifying himself, and asked the office if they would make such an opinion, and Carlson accused him of going around the draft letter and speaking for the salary commission.
Berg said he believed their line of questioning needed to be passed up the chain of command, starting first with the prosecutor’s office and Andrew Logerwell, Lewis County’s chief civil deputy prosecutor who provides legal counsel to the salary commission. He said he would see if the prosecutor’s office would submit the letter on their behalf.
“My job as a governmental lawyer is to give timely, accurate legal advice — whether or not my audience wants to hear it, agrees with me, benefits or does not benefit from that by extension. So, to suggest that I would give my advice based on what I think my boss wants to hear is frankly insulting,” Logerwell, who worked in the AG’s office from 2007 to 2018, told Carlson. He noted that Meyer gives him independence to provide legal civil advice.
Logerwell had previously given an opinion to the salary commission stating that he believed the board of county commissioners was in the right. He argued that just because state law allows counties the ability to create salary commissions and give them authority, doesn’t necessarily mean the lower body has authoritative say over their work.
The county commissioners originally reconvened the salary commission back in 2019 with the passage of Resolution 19-152, which gave the citizens established powers to set the county commissioners’ salaries and recommend the salaries of other elected officials to the county commissioners. Before that, the salary commission had largely been vacated for a number of years due to no members being appointed.
Resolution 21-296, passed back in August, essentially rescinds the commission’s authority to review salaries on electeds other than setting the commissioners’ pay.
Raising Lewis County elected officials’ salaries in 2020 proved contentious, according to previous The Chronicle reporting, in large part because the county commissioners at first rejected raising salaries on other elected officials due to COVID-19 hardships for constituents while the salary commission signed off on the same 10% increase for the county commissioners.
County Assessor Dianne Dorey last summer told The Chronicle that the 2020 increase was the first cost-of-living salary adjustment she’d seen since 2014.
The decision back in August to tie most elected officeholder’s salaries to a percentage of a supreme court judge was a compromise from removing authority altogether, said Lewis County Commissioner Lindsey Pollock. She said it was for the best.
“The main goal was to try to avoid the optics issue that occurred in 2020, and I know there was some discord in the commissioner meetings when they were talking about whether other electeds would get a raise or not,” said Pollock, who makes $90,900 in annual salary not including benefits. “Come 2021, there was some desire to not see that situation repeat itself.”
County commissioners last year spoke openly about retiring the citizen-led commission in the leadup to the August proclamation, but this time in an effort to depoliticize the decision making. All of the current salary commissioners' terms expire in September 2023.
“I think that was probably our best compromise going forward,” Pollock said.
As of July 2021, the county assessor, auditor, clerk, coroner and treasurer all make an annual salary of $90,852, according to the resolution. The county’s prosecuting attorney makes $189,691, at 95% the judge’s salary, and the sheriff makes $135,779, or roughly 68% the judge’s salary.
The Washington state salary for a supreme court judge is currently $199,675, and will increase to $203,196 this July.
The salary commission will meet Feb. 17 to further discuss their letter to the Attorney General’s office. The salary commission will also begin work to reset Board of Lewis County Commissioner salaries, too.