Yakima County Clerk

Janelle Riddle

Yakima County commissioners expect to complete an independent investigation into the county clerk’s office by the end of May, before work begins on the 2017 operating budget.

A series of complaints about how county Clerk Janelle Riddle is running her office, coupled with her plans to end a cost-savings agreement with the courts that allows some of her staff to also work for judges, prompted the investigation.

During a study session Wednesday morning, commissioners briefly reviewed complaints and discussed the makeup of the independent panel and its objectives.

The panel, similar to one four years ago led by then-federal Magistrate James Hutton to probe the county’s entire law and justice system, will be comprised of three members with expertise in county clerk and law and justice operations, commissioners said.

They plan to assemble the panel by the end of the month.

Riddle, who last week said she welcomes the investigation, didn’t return phone calls seeking comment Wednesday.

Riddle’s plan to nix an agreement that allows some of her deputy clerks to spend part of their time working for judges would increase the cost of court operations by nearly $500,000 a year, court officials have said.

During last week’s Law and Justice Committee meeting, Riddle disagreed it would cost that much, and said she’d provide a more accurate cost assessment later this month. The Law and Justice Committee represents the interests of judges, county prosecuting attorneys, public defenders and the county clerk.

This isn’t the first time Riddle has attempted to end the agreement. She made the same move right after taking office in January 2015, but backed off months later. Citing state law defining powers of the clerk as separate from the court, Riddle maintains that her staff also should remain separate from court staff.

Commissioners say they are not willing to increase the overall budget for law and justice services, which already accounts for roughly 82 percent of the county’s $61.2 million general fund.

That said, such a move could foster budget shifts within the law and justice system — which includes the courts, the Sheriff’s Office and the offices of the prosecuting attorney and public defender.

“We’ve drawn that line where we’re not going past that 82 percent,” Commissioner Kevin Bouchey said. “This may have broader impacts than just the courts and the clerk.”

Commissioners say the reason for the investigation goes beyond Riddle’s effort to end the agreement. There have been complaints that her office is behind in forwarding child support orders to the state and failing to process property transfers in a timely manner.

Three unfair labor practice complaints and two grievances, one against a fellow employee, also have been filed by workers in her office since Riddle took the helm.

Commissioners want the panel to assess those complaints as well as make recommendations about how the clerk’s office should operate in relationship with other departments.

“I think this would provide an impartial view of everything and the best way it all should work,” said Commissioner Rand Elliott.

Whether Riddle would accept any recommendations from the panel is unclear. An elected official, she wouldn’t be bound by the panel’s findings, nor is she under the authority of commissioners — although they control her budget.

“This is my elected duty by law and I’m not going to let any committee affect what I’m doing,” she told the Law and Order Committee last week after being informed that she would not be able to help select members of the investigatory panel.