Candidates for county prosecutor face off in city hall forum

Candidates for Kitsap County prosecutor answer citizen-submitted questions at a forum Tuesday that covered everything from management experience to crime rates. - Cecilia Garza | Bainbridge Island Review
Candidates for Kitsap County prosecutor answer citizen-submitted questions at a forum Tuesday that covered everything from management experience to crime rates.
— image credit: Cecilia Garza | Bainbridge Island Review

Bainbridge residents had a chance to hear from some of the candidates running for Kitsap County prosecutor Tuesday during an open forum at city hall.

The overall message some of the opponents conveyed? It’s time for change at the county prosecutor’s office, and it’ll take a fresh face to make it happen.

“We haven’t had a primary election for a prosecutor in over 40 years,” said Bob Scales, a former Bainbridge councilman who announced his candidacy in May.

“I believe there’s a reason for that.”

Scales, a Democrat, is running for the position along with incumbent county prosecutor Russ Hauge, a Democrat from Silverdale; Tina Robinson, a Republican from Port Orchard; and Bruce Danielson, an independent candidate from Port Orchard.

While Danielson could not make the forum Tuesday, the other three candidates were asked citizen-submitted questions that covered everything from crime issues to the candidates’ management experience.

What crime do you think is rising in Kitsap County and what do you think you can do as a prosecutor to reduce the incline?

“Drugs are probably our number one concern,” Scales said.

“Not just drug crimes, but crimes that are related to drugs.

“One of the things that I’ve heard throughout the county is a concern about not only the crimes themselves but chronic nuisance properties.”

Scales explained that through his work with the city of Seattle he helped pass an ordinance focused on chronic nuisance properties that can serve as a outline for improvements in the prosecutor’s office.

The ordinance, Scales said, brings community groups and law enforcement together to involve landlords in getting properties cleaned up.

“Drugs, prostitution, gang violence, noise, garbage, just arresting people doesn’t deal with the problem,” Scales said.

“It’s the house, the location and it’s the lack of involvement from the owner/landlord.”

Hauge agreed drugs are an increasing issue, but also human trafficking.

“The use of opiates are becoming the problem,” he said. “Now we see it half a dozen, a dozen times a week.”

Hauge explained that the county cannot arrest its way out of drug issues. Medication-assisted therapies for opiate addiction are in place, and he is in full support of continuing that practice.

“The next issue, though, in terms of actual misery and harm to the community that I think we need to pay attention to is human trafficking and sex exploitation,” Hauge continued.

“It’s crime that’s been with us forever, but, like the rest of the country, we’re waking up to what it takes to eradicate this crime now.”

The prosecutor’s office, Hauge said, has undertaken a collaborative partnership with law enforcement since 2012 to stop the trafficking trade. It has also developed the first diversion program for victims in Washington.

Robinson disagreed with Hauge’s assessment of human trafficking in Kitsap.

“This isn’t going to be very popular, but I’m concerned about the money that is being spent on human trafficking,” Robinson said.

“I know that it’s a big issue across our nation. I’m just not convinced it’s a problem here in Kitsap County.”

Robinson explained that in the arrests she’s seen, it looks more like the county is importing the criminals from other counties and using Kitsap dollars to prosecute them.

The victims, she said, are also coming from other counties.

“I’m sure that if I get this job, that will be one of the first things that I will be saying, is show me the evidence that it is really a problem in Kitsap County,” Robinson said.

In addition to handling criminal cases in Kitsap County, the prosecuting attorney handles civil matters representing county agencies, much like a law firm represents an individual. The candidates talked about that role and what makes them each qualified.

Hauge said he made his start as an intern at the prosecutor’s office and then at a private firm where he handled a variety of civil matters.

However, when he began his work as the county prosecutor in 1995 he knew the first step for improvement was bringing the workload in-house.

“I was appalled when I walked in the door on Jan. 1, 1995 over how much money we were spending on outside legal counsel,” Hauge said.

“We had four lawyers on staff in the civil division and they seemed to think their job was to find a private firm to refer their work to.”

Over his tenure, he said he has saved the county about $5 million by bringing civil litigations in-house.

Robinson explained that while she does not have the same experience as Hauge, her background is in management. Employment and labor law was also her focus in law school.

“While I don’t have experience with land use or other areas of the civil division, I believe that I will hire good, qualified people,” Robinson said.

“That’s what I do, and then I work with my people in order to become more familiar.”

Scales said he would bring expertise in civil matters to the county.

He worked as the director of government affairs for the Seattle attorney’s office and managed two attorneys in thousands of public records requests every year.

Atop this, he said he has handled collections and would make some big changes at Kitsap County.

The prosecutor’s office has recently shown up in the news for contracting with a collection agency named Bounceback, Inc.

The agency is contacting people who have written bad checks, threatening criminal prosecution and demanding payment in addition to the money owed.

“Which I believe by definition is extortion,” Scales said of the collection.

“If I were elected, I would immediately severe the contract with Bounceback and stop that practice.”

Scales also noted a recent “anti-endorsement” by the Kitsap County Deputy Sheriff’s Guild.

In the letter, the guild said the prosecutor’s office has interfered with the guild’s labor contract and is the reason why union members have been working without one since 2009.

“These are the clients of the civil division who are saying they basically have no confidence in the attorneys in that office,” Scales said.

“Whenever an officer is sued or the county is sued, the prosecutor’s office represents them and they have no confidence in that representation.”

In his closing statements, Hauge asked the public to instead focus their attention to his record instead of comments made by his challengers.

“My record is there,” Hauge said.

“I ask you to look at those, not rely on misrepresentation.”

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