Yakima County Clerk Janelle Riddle is challenging the authority that Superior Court judges have over her deputy clerks while they are working in the courtroom — a move Judge David Elofson warned could land her in contempt of court.
Riddle said she intends this week to return a deputy clerk to work in the courtroom who was barred by judges last month for failing to turn on the court’s recording system and to follow a judge’s directions.
Furthermore, Riddle said the clerk she’s returning to the courtroom will be training two new clerks and that they would not be keeping a record for the court, which is required under a prior agreement between the clerk’s office and judges. Riddle said the court will have to provide its own staff for that.
She explained her plans in an email Thursday to Elofson. He responded by saying the barred clerk would not be allowed to work in court and that Riddle could be held in contempt if she fails to provide a clerk to keep the court’s record.
Court Consultant Harold Delia said the penalty for being held in contempt could range from fines to incarceration.
“Elofson said he does not want (the barred clerk) in there, so if she shows up she’ll be escorted out,” Delia said Friday. “There’s an assumption by Janelle that she gets to determine what happens in the courtroom. And by definition of state law, she does not.”
Riddle didn’t return phone calls seeking comment Friday, nor would she meet with a Yakima Herald-Republic reporter who went to her office.
Delia said the court would have provided workers to fill in for a few days while the new clerks were being trained, but Riddle didn’t ask for that.
“We sure don’t like the way she approached this, telling us what we have to do,” Delia said.
This is the most recent flare-up over a cost-savings agreement that preceded Riddle and requires deputy clerks to also work for judges.
Deputy clerks have a standard duty to keep a public record of court hearings for the clerk’s office.
But the agreement, which was initially established with former clerk Kim Eaton, requires them to also keep a separate record for the court. That agreement was initiated after stenographers were replaced with automated recording machines that clerks now operate.
Riddle has disliked the agreement since taking office in January 2015, and even attempted to undo it early on before backing off.
She maintains that the agreement blurs the statutory line separating powers between her office and the courts, and that it undermines her authority as an elected official.
Now, Riddle plans to end the agreement — which saves the county about $400,000 annually — at the end of the year.
That move, coupled with a series of complaints from other department heads, county officials and outside agencies, has led county commissioners to seek an independent panel to investigate the operations of Riddle’s office.
Title companies have complained that property transfers are backing up, and the state is concerned about a backlog of child support orders that Riddle’s office has yet to forward to the state, which enforces the orders.
Judges also have complained about staffing issues in Riddle’s office that cause court hearings to be delayed.
Riddle has lost seven workers over the past year, most of whom took jobs in other county departments. Remaining workers last June voted in favor of unionizing.
Commissioners expect the independent panel to be assembled by the end of the month, and the investigation to be complete by the end of May. The commissioners cannot order Riddle what to do, but they do have final say over her budget.
“I think that she manufactures these crises for some reason and we spend time trying to resolve them,” Delia said of Riddle. “I can’t understand how the system has changed so much just because of one person. Now we’re embroiled in this mess and we’re tired.”