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Restraining order granted to remove library dissolution question from ballot

By Loyal Baker

DAYTON–Following a hearing here on September 6, plaintiff Neighbors United for Progress, a Columbia County political action committee, obtained a temporary restraining order from Court Commissioner Julie Karl, who found cause to enjoin Auditor Will Hutchens from placing the Proposition 2 on the General Election ballot.

The measure would dissolve the library district, if approved by voters. It was authorized following a petition effort by defendant Jessica Ruffcorn and others in protest of the lack of action by the Columbia County Rural Library District commission to adopt policies requested by community members so that controversial books are not placed in the children's section.

Proposition 2 "is invalid on the grounds that (a) it exceeds the scope of the initiative authority granted to the people of the Unincorporated County; (b) the dissolution statute, RCW 27.12.320, as applied, is unconstitutional and internally inconsistent such that the petition process and a vote are invalid; (c) there is substantial evidence of fraud and good cause to restrain Defendants to permit the mandatory investigation of these allegations and/or vitiate the validity of petition signatures; (d) it clearly appears from specific facts by affidavit that immediate and irreparable injury, loss or damage will result before all parties can be heard; (e) that actual and substantial injury will occur without the temporary restraining order in place," ruled Commissioner Karl, ordering Hutchens and Elections Director Cathy Able to be prohibited from including or placing Proposition 2 on the Nov. 7 ballot.

Columbia County, Hutchens and Abel are co-defendants with Ruffcorn in the NUP action filed August 29. During the hearing, Ruffcorn appeared pro se as legal representation had not yet been finalized.

The Temporary Restraining Order remains in effect for 14 days from September 6, or until a subsequent hearing set for 3:30 p.m., Wednesday, September 20. Deadlines for printing the November ballot are imminent and Hutchens has been in communication with ballot printers, who are waiting a ruling, according to Dale Slack, Prosecuting Attorney.

At that September 20 hearing, Ruffcorn's attorneys from the Silent Majority Foundation, Pasco, Wash., will claim that Ruffcorn "is improperly named as her signature gathering activity and participation in Proposition 2 was protected as an activity with her Washington Constitution Article 1, Section IV, Right to Petition and Assemblage and within her Right to Petition the Government pursuant to the United States Constitution's First Amendment," court records filed Sept. 7 indicate.

Attorney Peter Serrano and the Silent Majority Foundation, including his fellow attorneys Karen L. Osborne and Austin F. Hatcher, also assert that RCW 4.105, Uniform Public Expression Act, along with protections provided by the constitutions, "are afforded to Mrs. Ruffcorn.

"Under these circumstances, we believe that Defendant Ruffcorn must be dismissed, and we're amenable to Plaintiffs so doing through an Amended Complaint. Alternatively, we will need to file a Special Motion for Expedited Relief on Ruffcorn's behalf after the 14-day statutory window has terminated. Finally, this email serves as a Notice that triggers the statutory stay afforded under RCW 4.105.020(1)."

In a related matter, Ruffcorn's counsel gave notice that they were disqualifying Superior Court Judge Brooke J. Burns. Attempts at contacting Ruffcorn's legal representatives were not answered prior to this edition's press deadline.

In a lengthy filing made September 5 by the NUP, prior to the September 6 hearing before Commissioner Karl, NUP attorney Richard Jacobs argued that the plaintiffs were seeking a temporary restraining order and included declarations of six Columbia County or Dayton residents, plus a declaration by Jacobs on behalf of the NUP.

Declarations were filed by Carol J. Anderson, Michael J. McQuary, Robin McQuary-Billow, Christopher Billow, Elise Severe as chair of the NUP and as resident of Unincorporated County, and Richard Jacobs. Anderson, McQuary, McQuary-Billow and Billow are residents of the city.

The declarations had in common the assertion that tax-paying citizens and city residents were being "disenfranchised" of their right to vote and would suffer damage by being denied services their taxes should provide. Anderson and McQuary stated they fear the proposition would cause damage to the community and its prestige.

Elise Severe, chair of NUP, stated she has monitored the "book ban," dissolution petition drive, "and the outrageous campaign to defame and chase our Library Director out of town." She enumerated her point of view of the dispute's history; acknowledged concerned citizens' several attempts to have Library Board review 11 objectionable books with the board supporting [the now former] library director's decisions; acknowledged that interim library director "gave in to Proposition 2's sponsors' demands and moved some books in the library."

Severe asserted that petition supporters "claimed that the books were sexually explicit and were being shown to young children in an effort to 'groom' them, presumably for some sort of sexual abuse. No evidence was ever provided, and it's not clear that a single young child ever access (sic) any of the books that the group complained about."

Severe's declaration stated the controversy began in June, 2022, when the library announced "Pride Month. Jessica Ruffcorn and members of the Columbia County's (sic) Conservatives began a disinformation campaign online to discredit the Library, its director and to effect a book ban of approximately 11 books that Ms. Ruffcorn and other conservatives objected to."

Severe additionally detailed the circumstances surrounding the first vetting of signatures, the follow-up petition submission, and the commission approving Proposition 2.

A second declaration by Severe was included in the filing, identifying her as a resident of Unincorporated Columbia County, a taxpayer, and describing the damage dissolution would cause to her and the community at large, such as reading programs, toddler programs, literacy efforts, and the potential of possible newcomers relocating elsewhere due to this issue.

Richard Jacobs, counsel for the NUP, delineated the facts of the issue in his declaration.

Also filed September 7 was an Answer and Assertion of Cross-Claims on behalf of Columbia County, Auditor Will Hutchens and Director of Elections Cathy Abel, filed by prosecuting attorney Slack. Over two dozen pages of paragraph-by-paragraph answers to the NUP's complaint were given.

In the document County defendants admit to various allegations in the NUP suit, except in case defendants are without sufficient knowledge or information to form a belief, in instance where the allegations call for legal conclusions of the court, or if defendants may be considered guilty of any wrongdoing in the performance of their duties, among the many points asserted in the NUP complaint. County Defendants deny any wrongdoing in placing the measure at issue on the ballot.

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