Recall petition filed against 3 Richland school officials

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A voter group filed petitions Monday to unseat Semi Bird, Kari Williams and Audra Byrd from the Richland School Board after they voted in February to make masks optional inside schools.

Four voters filed petitions Monday to unseat three Richland School Board members they say orchestrated a vote in February to illegally make masks optional.

The recall group alleges Semi Bird, Audra Byrd and Kari Williams exceeded their power as school board members, broke state law by violating the governor’s emergency proclamation and indoor COVID mask mandate, broke Washington’s open meetings law, and violated multiple school district ethics and policies in the process.

The board members could face a recall election if the group gathers enough signatures to put the issue on the ballot.

The petitions were filed with the Benton County Auditor’s Office by voters Brian Brendel, Bradley Rew, Michael Lawrence and Tony Peurrung.

They claim in the petitions that the three board members as a result of their alleged misfeasance and malfeasance damaged the district’s reputation and finances and should be held accountable.

Brendel, a former Richland parent and coach, told the Tri-City Herald that the issue comes down to “good governance.”

“I got interested because it was clear to me their actions were against the law, and those actions were significantly damaging to the district, the reputation of the district, how the district functions — and that’s something the community should not stand for,” he said.

A Benton County Superior Court judge must now determine if the charges meet the legal standing for a recall vote.

If so, the petitioners can move forward with gathering signatures.

They would need to collect 25% of the total of votes cast in each of the school board members’ last election.

That would be at least 5,000 signatures each, Brendel said, but varies between the board members. Bird and Byrd were elected last November. Williams was elected in November 2019.

Petitions that make it to the ballot need 50% of the vote plus 1 to oust an elected official.

None of the three board members returned emails and phone calls on Tuesday requesting comment.

Alleged charges

A total of 10 charges have been levied against Byrd and Williams. Bird faces 11 charges.

The additional charge against Bird is for deleting comments and blocking people on his public-facing Facebook page. The page in question was formerly used for campaigning, but now acts as a medium for interacting with the public on district business.

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Richland School Board Jennifer King [email protected]

Brendel said his actions are a blatant First Amendment violation, and argues the page serves as an extended resource to his official duties serving the people.

“It’d be one thing if he shut it down,” Brendel said. “However, once he became a public official he modified that to be a communication point of his public office.”

He cited a 2019 U.S. Appeals Court’s ruling on the matter, which says officials cannot block people from their social media pages based on criticism since it’s a “public forum.”

Among the charges against Bird, Byrd and Williams are:

  • Violating state Open Public Meetings Act by taking final action to make masks optional in Richland schools, despite the item not being listed on the Feb. 15 special meeting agenda.
  • Violating state OPMA by holding “additional non-public meetings, at least among themselves” in the lead up to the vote.
  • Knowingly violating Gov. Jay Inslee’s state of emergency proclamation and the Secretary of Health’s mandate by making masks optional, despite legal counsel recommending against doing so.
  • Violating state law by exceeding their authority as a school board to direct mask and public health policies.
  • Violating their responsibilities to follow state law by failing to reverse their decision at a special meeting the next day, resulting in schools being closed.

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Several hundred people participated in the event to support the district’s superintendent and administration. Bob Brawdy [email protected]

Other charges deal with perceived violations to the board’s code of ethics and policies and procedures. They’re accused of violating:

  • Code of ethics stipulating the board will follow all state laws.
  • Code of ethics stipulating board members recognize it’s not their job to run the schools, but see they are “well run.”
  • Code of ethics stipulating board action will only be considered “after the board has consulted those who will be affected by them.”
  • Code of ethics stipulating the board will support personnel in proper performance of their duties.
  • Policies and procedures stipulating the board will be tasked with taking action to make sure sure operations fall within state law, district policy and development of educational programs.

The charges don’t include a violation to the Public Records Act by board member Audra Byrd.

She told the Herald last week that she regularly deletes text messages because she doesn’t have enough storage space. The issue came to light when a public records request showed a four-month gap in communication between her and the board.

Intentionally destroying those records as a public official is a Class B felony under Washington state law. She told the Herald she was attempting to retrieve them through her cellphone provider.

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Supporters of Richland School Board’s Tuesday night decision to end the school mask mandates lined George Washington Way in Richland to promote mask choice in schools. Jennifer King [email protected]

At Tuesday evening’s regular board meeting, Byrd said her lawyers advised her not to speak about “ongoing legal issues.” That may be in reference to the OPMA lawsuit an Olympia activist opened against them.

“I pride myself in being an honest person and I try my best to live my life with integrity,” she said.

There was no discussion from the board about the recall petitions.

What is a recall?

The ability for voters to recall elected officials is in the Washington State Constitution and state law. The statute applies to both local and state public officials, said Benton County Auditor Brenda Chilton.

Her office is tasked with overseeing both local elections and receiving recall petitions.

“This is a long process,” she told the Herald this week. “(The recall) was designed because it shouldn’t be easy to overturn the will of the voters, so it was the intention of the Legislature so that we weren’t running recall elections every other day. But it’s an achievable process.”

The Auditor’s Office received the school district recall petitions on Monday, and began working Tuesday to serve notice to the elected officials and Benton County Prosecutor Andy Miller.

From there, Miller’s office will provide a synopsis to be a Superior Court judge, Chilton said. The judge doesn’t give a verdict on the charges, but examines to see if the petition and its charges meet the state’s standard for recall.

If one or more charges are sufficient, petitioners are granted 180 days to gather signatures, Chilton said.

If the signatures quota is met, recall election must then be held from 45 to 90 days following the conclusion of canvassing. Depending on the timeline, a special election may need to be called.

Elected officials who are recalled must leave office by the date of the election’s certification.

The remaining Richland School Board officials would be tasked with appointing replacements to serve out any remaining terms, if any board members are recalled.

Previous recall attempts

One of the more recent recall attempts came against former Benton County Sheriff Jerry Hatcher, who was ousted from office back in August for tampering with evidence, hindering an investigation, falsifying public documents and intimidating public servants, among other charges alleged.

Many other recall efforts haven’t succeeded.

Chilton said her office has received only four recall petitions in the last five years, and Hatcher’s was the only one that made it through the whole process and to the ballot.

This story was originally published April 12, 2022 1:48 PM.

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Eric Rosane is a civic accountability reporter who joined the Tri-City Herald in February 2022. He previously worked for the Daily Chronicle in Lewis County covering education, county government and the Legislature. He graduated from Central Washington University in 2018.