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New Island District Court judge aims for ‘transparency’

Bill Hawkins answers questions during an interview last week for Island County District Court judge. He was selected by the Island County commissioners to fill the remainder of Judge Peter Strow’s term from a pool of seven candidates. - Justin Burnett / The Record
Bill Hawkins answers questions during an interview last week for Island County District Court judge. He was selected by the Island County commissioners to fill the remainder of Judge Peter Strow’s term from a pool of seven candidates.
— image credit: Justin Burnett / The Record

Former Island County prosecutor and Coupeville resident Bill Hawkins is the next District Court judge, and he said he will emphasize more “transparency,” including allowing cameras in the courtroom.

Hawkins, 57, was unanimously chosen by the commissioners last week to fill the remainder of Judge Peter Strow’s term. The 16-year veteran of the bench retires at the end of March.

Hawkins, who beat out six other applicants for the position, called the interview process and the trust placed in him by the board a “humbling experience.” Although he has held the public’s trust before, it’s something that must be earned and Hawkins said he is eager to get to work.

“I’m just honored,” he said, moments after he was announced as Strow’s successor.

The first round of interviews was held Wednesday and the pool of candidates narrowed to three: Hawkins; Coupeville attorney and public defender Mark Hanley; and Linda Kipling, who is the current District Court commissioner.

The board interviewed each in open public session Friday, and the board made its decision following an executive session.

All three commissioners said in separate statements that the choice was not easy, that each of the candidates brought different qualities and strengths.

“Your integrity was clear,” said Price Johnson, of the three finalists. “I firmly believe our citizens would have been very well served, just in very different ways.”

Hawkins is currently a pro-tem judge for the District Court and has more than 30 years experience in the courtroom. He earned his degree from the University of Colorado, School of Law in 1982.

Hawkins spent 17 years in the Island County Prosecutor’s Office, seven of which were as the elected prosecutor, before leaving to spend the next 10 years in private practice. Most recently, he was the city prosecutor and attorney for Oak Harbor.

Given his past experience as a lawyer, pro-tem judge and as an elected official, Hawkins said he entered the interview process confident that his qualifications and skills made him a good fit to be the District Court judge.

“I’m comfortable doing the job and I know I can do it,” Hawkins said.

The former prosecutor said he has great respect for his predecessor and doesn’t have a lot of changes in mind.

First and foremost, he said he has no plans to make staff changes and that includes keeping Kipling on the job.

“She stays, she’s great,” Hawkins said. “Everybody stays … they are all just outstanding.”

A District Court commissioner is also a judge but one who is appointed by the court’s elected official.

Despite his respect for Strow, Hawkins said he plans to make a few improvements. For one, he said he would like to improve transparency and would end a long-held ban of cameras in the courtroom.

A “TV battery” can be invasive and sometimes inappropriate but, in general, cameras will be allowed in the courtroom, he said.

He plans to encourage an overall environment of openness.

“I will consider this one of the very first talks (with court staff),” Hawkins said.

What strategies might be employed to better connect the District Court with the rest of county government was one of the questions asked of candidates during the final interview process.

Hawkins said that he was contacted by a slew of county officials, including Superior Court Judge Alan Hancock, prior to the interviews and the need for “more communication” was made clear.

Hawkins also plans to trim expenditures, such as the purchase of expensive law books. The information is necessary but much of it is available online at a discounted price or, in some cases, for free.

As for big changes, Hawkins has no immediate plans. His philosophy is that new department heads need to learn how the organization works first.

Any changes that are made should be done slowly and with respect to employees.

“A wise man once said that if you want to move that piano in church from one side of the room to the other, you move it an inch every Sunday,” Hawkins said.

Although Strow is stepping down in the middle of his term, Hawkins is not required to run for office in November, but can serve out the last two years.

The seat is next up for election in 2014.

The position carries a four-year term, pays $141,710 and is nonpartisan

 

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