Appeals Court upholds 2017 Moses Lake School District bond election

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MOSES LAKE — Washington State’s Third District Court of Appeals has upheld the certification of the Moses Lake School District’s February 2017 school construction bond election.

In a 22-page unanimous opinion written by Chief Judge George Fearing and released early Thursday, the court affirmed that Grant County Auditor Michelle Jaderlund substantially complied with Washington state election law in certifying last year’s bond election.

“We find no Washington election statute that demands annulment of an election because of an election irregularity and no Washington opinion that declares a statutory notice requirement mandatory,” Fearing wrote.

“(Washington state law) does not void the election if the county auditor fails to make phone calls after sending notice by mail of the missing or flawed signature of the voter,” Fearing continued. “For this reason, the Moses Lake School District bond measure should be affirmed.”

“I think we’re pleased that (the appellate court judges) followed the path I thought they would,” said Jim Mitchell, who handles civil cases for Grant County. “Eligible voters had the opportunity to vote.”

In February 2017, Moses Lake School District voters cast ballots for a $135.4 million bond to build a new high school and elementary school, refurbish the existing high school, and improve security district wide. The measure garnered 60.03 percent, just enough to win.

A group of Moses Lake Schools District voters — Fred Meise, Doug Bierman, Pat Hochstatter, Mike Counsell, Jason Melcher, and Jared Pope — contended there were problems in the vote count, and filed suit a year ago alleging Jaderlund did not follow state election law when she failed to call 31 voters who did not respond to mail requests to clarify or sign their ballots.

Because of that, George Ahrend, an attorney representing the six voters, asked both District Court Judge John Antosz and the state appeals court to throw out the election results.

Antosz ruled last March in favor of the auditor.

The appellate court agreed with Antosz, ruling that despite failing to notify 31 voters by telephone whose ballot signatures were either missing or did not match, Jaderlund was still in “substantial compliance” with state election law.

“The Grant County auditor complied with that purpose by sending a notice in the mail. The auditor received no return envelopes. Thus, all uncalled voters received actual notice of the defect and the need to perform some act in order to validate their vote,” Fearing wrote. “We question whether the auditor would reach most of the uncalled voters by phone and whether phone notice would prompt the voter to timely correct the error when mail notice did not prompt the correction.”

In a statement, Moses Lake School District Superintendent Josh Meek said he was encouraged by the ruling.

“As this very important issue sits in our community and on behalf of the students of Moses Lake, forward progress is reason to celebrate. However, I must also remain realistic that the pending bond litigation was only one of multiple factors of shifting state and local conditions that the Moses Lake School Board of Directors are currently reviewing,” Meek said.

In his opinion, Fearing was emphatic that the auditor’s failure to call was not misconduct that rose to the level demanding the invalidation of an election.

“The Moses Lake School District bond measure passed with a razor thin supermajority. Three votes could have changed the outcome. Nevertheless, we have no evidence that any of the uncalled voters would have corrected the signature if called, and, upon a correction, would have voted against the bond measure,” Fearing wrote.

“Therefore, we cannot conclude that calling the voters would likely have altered the election result. For this additional reason, we affirm the trial court,” Fearing wrote.

Charles H. Featherstone can be reached via email at countygvt@columbiabasinherald.com

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