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Klickitat County Sheriff Bob Songer speaks at an event in July 2020. 

WHITE SALMON — A statement released by Klickitat County Sheriff Bob Songer — which called for the arrest, detainment and recommendation for prosecution of governmental officials he unilaterally believes are acting outside the bounds of the constitution — drew pushback from county commissioners, who said they and county employees felt threatened and intimidated by the messaging.

Posted on the Klickitat County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page and forwarded to local media organizations, Songer’s June 17 statement sent ripples in county circles.

It impacted the day-to-day operations of the county health department and weakened the feelings of security of many county residents who work in local government, said county commissioners, leaving the Board of County Commissioners to respond officially with a letter to the sheriff on the constitutionality and the impacts his outspoken politics has had on elected officials and county staff.

The Board of County Commissioners responded to the sheriff following a candid discussion last Tuesday by approving a written response condemning Songer’s public statement for invalidly interpreting laws, a duty not prescribed to him in his official role as sheriff, and for putting county staff’s safety and security at risk.

During the discussion, Board Chair Dave Sauter said upon examining the letter over and over, he concluded that the letter is not limited to focusing on the governor’s mandates on the COVID-19 emergency. “The more I read it, it upsets me more, because… that is a general statement about any bureaucrat or government official, mayor, commissioner, whoever, that is perceived by a single individual, namely the sheriff, to be violating somebody’s constitutional rights, (and) is subject to arrest and detainment.”

“That is a chilling thing to say,” Sauter said. “That is the path to authoritarian regimes.”

The letter from the board reads: “While we truly appreciate you and your dedication to the citizens of our great county and for your love and respect for the Constitution, we cannot sit by and say nothing regarding your statements that the board, county residents and county employees find threatening and intimidating.

“Your statements were construed as threatening and intimidating to elected officials and county employees,” the county staff-prepared letter read, which was signed by all three commissioners and sent to the sheriff. “Your comments implied the arrest, detention and recommended prosecution for following state mandates and laws that you may disagree with, without going through the court process and judicial system as deemed by the Constitution.

“We do live in a nation of laws bound by the Constitution; however, we cannot choose what parts of the Constitution we are going to follow on any given day,” the letter continued. “Our founders wrote the first, second, and third articles dealing with separation of powers. In doing so, they gave the power to determine what is or is not constitutional to the courts and whether we personally like a particular law, mandate, governor’s declaration, or if we personally think that it is unconstitutional, it is the courts that decide what is or is not constitutional.”

There was not much debate on the language used in the response letter as the board informally agreed to have staff revise and put forward a final version for approval. The commissioners were all in agreement that they needed to address the issue.

That the letter was peppered with flattery directed towards the official who tacitly threatened the authors of the letter as well as county employees and other elected officials with arrest was explained by Commissioner Dan Christopher, who wrote the first draft of the response. He said there were several reasons for the language: “1. (It) is out of respect for the office of the sheriff; 2. It does not do the citizens of the county any good to start a war … between elected officials; 3. The way it was written was respectful, yet provided our stance while trying to make sure (egos) did not get (too) hurt so that there was less possibility of retaliation or escalation; 4. It showed respect to the department and staff.”

The statement

Songer’s June 17 statement claims that the founding of the country was based in Christianity, and by that measure, “I have taken an oath before the ‘Supreme Judge of the Universe’ to keep the peace and to secure, defend and protect the people of this jurisdiction from threats to their liberties, their livelihoods, and the peaceable enjoyment of their property.”

The statement goes on to condemn Washington Governor Jay Inslee’s issuing of executive orders relating to the COVID-19 emergency, which closed down businesses, churches, schools, and denied “the people of this state their God-given and constitutionally protected rights to travel, to worship, to assemble, and to exercise personal autonomy respecting wearing face masks or other medical devices.”

Songer called such actions by the governor unconstitutional, and vowed to implement policies and procedures in place barring his office from enforcing or assisting “in the enforcement of any order, edict, mandate, proclamation, directive, regulation, etc., that violates the rights of the people,” including certain First and Second Amendment rights, as well as the right to travel and “the right to lawfully engage in business activities without interference by representatives of any government, or agency or agent thereof, when such interference is based (sic).”

It further puts any governmental official on notice that he may choose to arrest and detain them for performing duties prescribed to them under what he considers “unconstitutional orders, edicts, mandates, proclamations, directives, regulations, etc.

“Fidelity to my oath requires that I abstain from enforcing any edict or order from a governor, or an executive, which lacks constitutional authority,” Songer wrote. That point was rebutted by Prosecuting Attorney David Quesnel, who, during Tuesday’s discussion, pulled from the Washington state Constitution and state code to argue that the sheriff does not have the authority to determine the constitutional validity of a law, and that it forbids sheriffs from practicing law.

‘What you say has meaning’

While the sheriff often releases statements in platitudes, some county officials are worried that a literal interpretation of his letter could mean consequences for those who operate under orders handed down by the state, should the sheriff or his deputies choose to execute the policies laid out in the statement.

“Under the literal interpretation of his letter, I could be arrested and detained for prosecuting a felon or domestic abuser for having a firearm, because that interferes with his right to bear arms … I could be arrested and detained for prosecuting someone for driving on a suspended a license or under the influence of alcohol because that interferes with their right to travel,” Quesnel said during Tuesday’s discussion.

The sheriff’s statements also impacted county operations of the health department, who for the past 15 months has been working to alleviate the county of public health issues relating to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Health Director Erinn Quinn informed the board, the prosecutor, and the county human resources department of impacts of the sheriff’s language in an email, the day after he published his statement. Upon reading the statement multiple times, she said, “I developed a genuine concern for both my own personal safety and security as well as that of my staff and brought this Facebook post to the attention of my department.

“Because I take the safety of my staff very seriously, I have already made decisions which will alter our normal business duties due to my inability to assure my staff of their safety within the community,” Quinn wrote.

Quinn continued, saying that for the past 15 months, her office has had to deal with threats and harassment from members of the public, and “while I feel my staff have been admirable in their ability to brush off these threats, threats of this nature coming from the sheriff himself are creating an environment where staff fear for their livelihood as public health employees.”

The prosecutor himself informed the board that his family has taken measures to install additional security provisions, and “I now have an attorney on retainer in case I’m arrested and detained by the sheriff,” Quesnel said. “I don’t take well to threats.”

Christopher, who prepared a first draft of the response letter, wrote in an email that he fears that he’ll be spending a night in county jail “just for writing my public statement. But I am willing to do just that. When someone fears using their first amendment rights, that’s a real travesty.”

White Salmon Mayor Marla Keethler told Columbia Gorge News that she was aware of Songer’s statement, but that the impacts did not extend out to city business, and that enforcement of state mandates were still in place at the municipal level.

The statement also spurred a response from Klickitat School District Superintendent Brian Freeman, who wrote to the sheriff, asking to either arrest and detain him, or to rescind his public statement. Freeman noted the school district will continue wearing masks and abiding by state mandates through the summer, a point which Songer called out as potentially illegal.

Discussing the letter, Commissioner Jacob Anderson said, “I want the sheriff to recognize that what you say has meaning and it impacts the people that you work with on a daily basis.”

Constitutional Sheriff

This was not the first time Songer has been lectured by the board on constitutional processes.

The self-proclaimed Constitutional Sheriff had lobbied for approval of a county resolution earlier this year that would have, in effect, made Klickitat County a sanctuary county for gun rights. The resolution would have barred county law enforcement from enforcing various gun regulations.

Similar comments were directed towards the sheriff during testimony before the board at their May 4 meeting when discussing the proposed resolution. Then, commissioners told Songer that the proposal usurps the state’s authority, and that the proper way to invalidate a state mandate is to try it in court.

Songer has made headlines in the past for calling Governor Inslee an ‘idiot’ and publicly stating he would not enforce state gun regulations or any of the COVID-19 mandates.

“Most everyone knows that our sheriff loves a mic and an audience. I’m fine with that,” Christopher said. “I also understand that the sheriff has the authority to not enforce any order, proclamation, or mandate that he sees fit. Again, I am fine with that. Where the sheriff doesn’t have the authority is to legally deem any order, proclamation or mandate ‘unconstitutional’ and threaten to make an arrest using his personal opinion of that constitutionality. If we allow any elected official and not the courts to judge law, and then threaten to act on that we allow tyranny.”

Asked if the letter goes far enough, Commissioners Anderson and Christopher both told Columbia Gorge News that their job does not authorize them to control the sheriff’s actions and views. Commissioner Sauter could not be reached for comment as he was out of town last week.

That said, “If he creates legal liability for the county, it is up to us commissioners to find the funds necessary to protect the country’s interests,” Anderson wrote in an email conversation.

Additionally, Songer is currently being sued in Benton County Superior Court for using his 140-member posse to hunt cougars with hounds.

Anderson and Christopher both mentioned they have no knowledge of any county official being placed under arrest relating to his latest statement.

Anderson noted that the sheriff has used his platform to announce he will not be enforcing COVID-19 mandates, but “the statements in his letter seem to indicate he is considering taking a more active roll with regards to his ability to arrest our residents, elected officials, and hard working members of the county and/or state departments.”

Sheriff Songer declined to comment on the commissioner’s statement.