Snohomish County Sheriff faces recall campaign after judge says that signature gathering can begin

Snohomish County Sheriff Adam Fortney

Snohomish County Sheriff Adam Fortney faces two potential recall campaigns, but he says he is not running from a fight to keep his job.

The drive to oust Fortney was sparked when he made comments on his Facebook page April 21 critical of Gov. Jay Inslee’s COVID-19 restrictions, adding that “the impacts of COVID-19 no longer warrant the suspension of our constitutional rights.”

Forney reiterated his stand that the sheriff’s department “will not be enforcing an order preventing religious freedoms or constitutional rights.”

On Friday, a judge ruled that two charges in the first recall petition submitted meet the legal threshold to move forward to gather signatures. Judge Stephen Warning of Cowlitz County is handling the case on the recall drives to avoid any conflict of interest with Snohomish County judges.

Monroe resident Lori Shavlik filed the first recall petition, arguing that Fortney “used his position as an elected official to encourage citizens to defy the law and violate the Governor’s Emergency Proclamations.”

During the Friday hearing, conducted by phone, Judge Warning told both sides that “the sheriff’s oath of office requires him to uphold the Constitution and laws of the state, and certainly the statements that are at issue here could be read and heard to say, ‘I will not enforce a law that I disagree with, or that I think runs afoul of the Constitution.’”

Fortney responded on his Facebook page that “although I did not ask for this fight, I will not shrink from it.”

“I stand by my statement that the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office is not going to arrest people for a gross misdemeanor when they pray, go to church or express their views under the First Amendment”, he added.

Fortney promised that he would announce a campaign on Facebook “to protect the Sheriff’s Office from political assault.” Nothing had been posted as of Monday evening.

The Snohomish County Deputy Sheriff’s Executive Board has come to Fortney’s defense. In an April 13th letter, Association President Matt Boice wrote that “we vehemently oppose the recall effort.” The letter goes on to assure the sheriff that he is “conducting himself (and representing our agency) with dignity, respect and the highest considerations for the safety of the community.”

However, Snohomish County Prosecutor Adam Cornell says the county will not pay for Fortney’s legal defense. In a letter to the sheriff, Cornell says he views the Facebook post as a call to disobey the governor and health officials.

Also on Friday, a second group — comprised of four lawyers — filed to recall Fortney. They argue that the sheriff has violated his oath of office and cite — among their reasons — the way he has handled the county jail during the COVID-19 outbreak as well as his decision to reinstate three deputies fired by a previous sheriff. This petition still faces a court hearing to determine if it qualifies to go to voters.

It is possible that both recalls could be presented to voters this fall. However, the prosecutor’s chief of staff, Michael Held, says: “Courts tend to be loath to burden citizens with confusing instructions,” and that a judge could “encourage” the recall campaigns to streamline the process.

Petitioner Lori Shavlik asked Judge Warning to allow signature gathering online because of the coronavirus pandemic. Warning refused, saying it is up to the state Legislature to change the laws on getting signatures.

Either petition would need 44,000 signatures to make the ballot. State law requires that the signatures gathered must be 25% of the total vote for the office facing recall; that was nearly 176,000 votes in the 2019 sheriff’s election.

— By Bob Throndsen

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