Island County prosecutor, commissioners argue over outside hire

Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks

Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks said he may file a lawsuit if the county commissioners hire an outside attorney without his approval.

A meeting between the commissioners and Banks became heated Wednesday afternoon as the elected officials argued about the commissioners’ plan to contract with an attorney to provide legal help for the update of the county’s comprehensive plan, which guides growth and development under the state Growth Management Act.

The commissioners, however, were unconvinced by the prosecutor’s arguments during the lengthy debate that delved into personal attacks.

“You are portraying this conversation as if we are trying to do something against you,” Commissioner Helen Price Johnson said. “In fact in our conversation … I said I wanted to collaborate with your office to provide the best legal counsel and support for this comprehensive plan that we possibly can.

“You took offense. Somehow the press was alerted and now we have this highly charged conversation,” she added, referring to comments Banks made to the Whidbey News-Times for a March 11 story.

Banks told the commissioners that he would be willing to consider a contract with an outside attorney — if an issue arises necessitating “extra horsepower” — but he was concerned that a contracted attorney would be unnecessarily costly since he has two talented land-use attorneys on staff.

“I think keeping the work in house in general is a better expenditure and keeps the money for other county departments,” he said.

In addition, he argued that the commissioners’ plan to hire the outside attorney is an unconstitutional infringement upon his authority as the county’s elected prosecutor.

“It amounts to hiring someone to usurp the authority of an elected official who’s accountable to the public,” he said.

Banks said if an attorney is hired to do the work of his office over his objection that he would take whatever legal action necessary to prevent his office from being usurped.

Commissioner Jill Johnson interjected, asking Banks if he was threatening to sue the commissioners; he answered that he would file a lawsuit against the attorney who was usurping his authority.

“OK, I just wanted to understand who you were threatening to sue,” Johnson said.

Both Johnson and Commissioner Price Johnson said they were certain that Banks was aware of their plan for hiring an outside attorney and they meant for the person to work together with Banks’ staff.

Johnson claimed that Banks’ presentation was “gamesmanship.”

“You knew enough to be concerned,” Johnson said. “You voiced your concerns to the press first.”

Price Johnson said she was looking for “strategic advice” from an attorney, which she claimed Banks has said his office cannot provide. The commissioners also questioned the speed and quality of the legal services the board receives from Banks.

“Sometimes I just get tired of fighting with you when I just want to find a solution,” Johnson said.

Commissioner Rick Hannold, who largely stayed out of the skirmish, explained that the board doesn’t want to replace the deputy prosecutors, who will remain in the “driver’s seat” during the update.

He said the prosecutor’s office has limited resources and they want “a subject matter expert” to help guide the county through the update process.

“If there’s a resource need in a department,” Banks responded, “it seems to me that the best person to make that determination is the person who runs that department. This decision was made elsewhere.”