By Marcy Stamper
A decision by Douglas County Superior Court Judge John Hotchkiss has found Okanogan County Commissioner Ray Campbell did not engage in conspiracy or unlawful action when Campbell voted to close a primitive county road.
Despite “significant suspicion” and questions about whether Campbell could have remained impartial in light of his personal and financial relationships with the Gebbers family when he voted to close Three Devils Road, Hotchkiss ruled that plaintiffs had not shown any evidence of a conspiracy.
In a five-page written opinion issued Sept. 25, Hotchkiss said Campbell had the right and authority to make a “political decision” to close the road.
Gamble Land and Timber, operated by members of the Gebbers family, petitioned the county in February to close 3 miles of Three Devils Road to protect their adjoining property from trespassing and vandalism.
“The decision to vacate a county road is a political decision. As a political decision, it is no secret that politicians are constantly lobbied,” wrote Hotchkiss. “As distasteful as some might believe lobbying is, it is not illegal and is part of the political process.”
As managers of the county road network, the commissioners had the right to vacate the road, Hotchkiss ruled at the Sept. 18 hearing in Okanogan County Superior Court. But Hotchkiss wanted more time to consider allegations of collusion, conspiracy and violation of the appearance-of-fairness doctrine against Campbell and the other commissioners.
Chiliwist Residents & Friends, a citizen group challenging Gamble Land’s efforts to have the county close the road to the public, alleged that Campbell’s personal and financial relationships with the Gebbers family made it impossible for him to be impartial.
“There are a lot of questions for our lawyer before we move on. We have to meet and discuss the issue and decide about our next step,” said Ruth Hall, president of Chiliwist Friends. The group has about 50 members.
In his written opinion, Hotchkiss acknowledged the concerns of the Chiliwist group.
“Although the court has a difficult time imagining how Mr. Campbell could participate in this process representing the best interest of all of the citizens of Okanogan County without considering both his significant financial and personal relationship with the petitioners, the Court does not believe that the Plaintiffs have submitted sufficient evidence of conspiracy/collusion,” wrote the judge.
To prove a conspiracy, there must be convincing evidence that parties entered into an agreement to accomplish an unlawful purpose, wrote Hotchkiss.
“Although the Court finds significant suspicion concerning the personal and financial relationship between Commissioner Campbell and the Gebbers family, there is no direct or even circumstantial evidence that there was actually an agreement between Commissioner Campbell and anyone else, or that anyone entered into an agreement to accomplish a conspiracy,” wrote Hotchkiss.
Hotchkiss considered evidence presented by Chiliwist Friends that Campbell has made real estate transactions for the Gebbers family and had a close friendship with Dan Gebbers, having delivered the eulogy at his funeral.
Attorneys for Okanogan County and Gamble Land argued that such relationships form in a small county but that no one had shown that Campbell had a direct financial interest in the road matter.
The judge also looked at evidence about contact between Jon Wyss, a member of the Gebbers family, and each commissioner about the proposed road vacation. Hotchkiss called Wyss’ discussions “nothing more than lobbying.”
Three Devils Road is a steep, primitive road that leads from the Chiliwist toward the Loup Loup summit and the Methow Valley. Gamble Land uses the adjacent property primarily for grazing and logging. The Chiliwist Residents filed the lawsuit in June after the county commissioners voted 2-to-1 to close the road. Commissioner Jim DeTro voted against the vacation.
The commissioners had the prerogative to disregard the recommendation by the county’s hearing examiner that the road should stay open because of its usefulness as an escape route and a way to get to public lands, wrote Hotchkiss.
In his opinion, Hotchkiss distinguished between political and judicial functions. If Campbell were a judge, he would have been required to recuse himself. But as an elected official, Campbell had the right to make a political decision, wrote Hotchkiss. “Such is the nature of politics. Any recourse is through the ballot box,” he wrote.
“It’s very disappointing. That it’s called a political decision doesn’t sit well with me,” said Hall.
Campbell said he could not comment until the case is settled and a final order is signed.
The final order in the case has not been prepared yet, according to Barnett Kalikow, attorney for the Chiliwist group. They will have 30 days to decide whether to appeal the case once the final order is signed.
In the meantime, Three Devils Road will remain open. The Chiliwist Residents posted a $10,000 bond required by Hotchkiss when he imposed an injunction on closing the road.