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Okanogan County finds itself in "a big mess," according to Okanogan County Superior Court Judge Jack Burchard. It also finds itself without a legal county clerk. That's because Charlene Groomes has been unable to fulfill the legal requirements to officially take office.
Washington State law (RCW 36.16.050) requires that "Every county official before he or she enters upon the duties of his or her office shall furnish a bond conditioned that he or she will faithfully perform the duties of his or her office and account for and pay over all money which may come into his or her hands by virtue of his or her office."
In Groomes' case, the bond requirement is $150,000.
Nan Kallunki, Administrative Services Director said after trying five separate companies, she was notified at the end of February by the county's insurance broker that they had "exhausted all avenues," and could not obtain a bond for Groomes. Kallunki said she started the process in December as she always does, because each year the elected officials must be bonded and they do that in one blanket policy. In an email, Kallunki said, "This rarely happens; I never imagined it would be a problem in our county."
Because state law requires that bond to be in place, Burchard says, Groomes does not actually qualify for the Office of County Clerk until that bond is in place.
Kallunki agreed, stating that at this time, Groomes is not officially the County Clerk. That was also confirmed with Steve Bozarth, Chief Civil Deputy Prosecutor. Bozarth said, "she is acting as defacto clerk."
Burchard said Groomes has been working with an attorney to put together a private surety bond, in which private individuals are pledging their assets to guarantee the bond. He said she was given a deadline of May 1, 2011 to comply, which she did, however, Burchard said there were four or five things he needed clarification on before he would sign off on the bond.
Specifically, Burchard has requested credit reports and verified assets of the individuals, adding that the process would need to be repeated annually, to "guarantee the sureities have not disposed of the assets."
Burchard has also requested written operating procedures for the office that explains exactly what procedures will be in place in the Clerk's Office to prevent fraudulent or negligent losses. He said he also wanted to know the frequency of outside audits.
In a telephone interview Groomes said she has been working very hard to get this bond put into place, and is confident that she will be able to provide the documentation to satisfy the judge's requirements.
We ask Groomes if she was aware of the bonding requirement before she decided to run, and she said she was not. She added that she didn't think there would be a problem with trying to get bonded, because she didn't realize that something from 10 years ago on her credit would be a problem.
Groomes' Attorney, Mick Howe, said today they believe they have all of the documents in place to satisfy the requirements, and they are just waiting for Burchard to get back. Burchard has been out of town on medical leave.
In a letter in late April to Groomes, Burchard stated: "My purpose in this letter is to emphasize that due to applicable law, failure to deal with this ASAP could threaten your position."
Under Washington law, if Groomes cannot provide a sufficient bond, the judge must vacate the office. Burchard said he has been trying to be flexible and work with Groomes, because he is hesitant to "overrule the will of the people who elected her." He said the county has been more than willing to work with her, and now he is "hoping Charlene will get this issue resolved." He said, it is her responsibility to solve this.
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