MOSES LAKE — The year 2018 began with a bang as lawyers squared off and prepared to argue the fate of the $135 million Moses Lake school construction bond.
A group of six Moses Lake School District residents were challenging the validity of the bond election, which passed with a bare 60.03 percent approval in February, 2017, claiming Grant County Auditor Michelle Jaderlund failed to follow the law in certifying the election.
At the center of the dispute was the allegation that Jaderlund failed to follow up letters to those whose ballot signatures were missing or did not match those on file with phone calls, an allegation Jaderlund did not deny.
This left 31 uncounted ballots — enough to sway an election won by two votes.
In April, 2017, Grant County Superior Court Judge John Antosz ruled in favor of the auditor, claiming Jaderlund “substantially complied” with the law. The six residents — Fred Meise, Doug Bierman, Pat Hochstatter, Mike Counsell, Jason Melcher and Jared Pope — appealed.
“We are asking the court to set aside a special election on a bond measure based on the admitted and complete failure of the Grant County Auditor to comply with what the superior court below described as the telephone requirement,” said Moses Lake attorney George Ahrend.
The court fast tracked the hearing, which the Columbia Basin Herald livestreamed on Facebook — a first for the state’s Third District Court of Appeals.
In a unanimous decision, the three-judge appellate court panel upheld Antosz’s ruling.
“(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,” wrote Judge George Fearing in April for the unanimous majority. “For this reason, the Moses Lake School District bond measure should be affirmed.”
With the election finally settled more than a year after the votes were cast, the Moses Lake School Board was suddenly faced with what to do with the bond proceeds. After a lengthy series of study sessions and two contentious public hearings, the board accepted a recommendation the district build two new elementary schools and “mini high school,” rather than a second full-sized high school and one elementary school, as the bond originally proposed.
“The recommendation for a second elementary school is a game changer,” said MLSD Superintendent Josh Meek.
By the end of the year, the district had already sold around $45 million in bonds and was looking at sites for the new elementary schools. And school board meetings had gotten a lot quieter.
Charles H. Featherstone can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org