Judge dismisses Wills recall petition

Charges of interferance during appointment process not enough to reach November ballot

A petition to recall Ocean Shores City Councilor Richard Wills will not see the ballot in November after a county judge found the evidence against Wills for acting erroneously during an appointment process earlier this year was not sufficient to oust him from office before the end of his term.

During a hearing Friday afternoon at the Grays Harbor County Courthouse in Montesano, Superior Court Judge Katherine Svoboda said the allegations that Wills abandoned his duties prior to a vote to fill a vacancy by supporting and discussing with candidates did not meet the “fairly high” burden of proof necessary to move the effort to the ballot.

“I think I understand where the petitioner is coming from,” Svoboda said in court March 29. “It is just simply not enough to support a recall petition.”

In a 30-minute hearing, Svoboda probed the case of Ocean Shores resident Jennifer Herboldsheimer, who filed the recall petition March 5, and heard defense from Wills’ legal counsel.

Herboldsheimer used evidence from a Feb. 12 city council meeting and email correspondence in the petition. During the February meeting, Wills agreed to recuse himself from a vote to fill a vacant council seat after the other councilors said in a statement he had “seriously compromised” the appointment process and was “in direct violation of our ethics code” because of a phone conversation he had in January with a candidate for the vacant council seat.

Herboldsheimer also used as evidence a January email sent to the council from Ryan Griffiths, the former candidate, who described an earlier phone conversation with Wills, when Wills told Griffiths another prospective candidate, Denise Siers, was “beloved” and would likely have the support of the council, and used the word “lifestyle” when referring to Griffiths’ queer identity.

Griffiths withdrew his application a few days later.

With the recall petition hinging on those items, Svoboda said there was not enough evidence to show the phone conversation alone caused Griffiths to withdraw, pointing out that Griffiths’ email listed several unrelated gripes with the vacancy application process.

“That is really drawing a very tenuous line from one to the other,” the judge said.

In defense, Wills’ lawyer Jeff Myers called the conversation “political prognostication” rather than discouraging Griffiths to proceed with his application, and said it was “not unusual political speech and political discourse between one sitting member of a body and a person considering filling that body.”

Svoboda concurred with that defense later, calling that type of situation “very typical.”

During her rebuttal, Herboldsheimer said Wills was one of only six people — those already on the council — with the power to decide on the new councilor, holding his duty during the process to a higher standard.

“That needs to be done, as the guidelines say, impartially, and that wasn’t the case,” Herboldsheimer said.

According to Myers, text messages between Wills and Griffiths showed it was Griffiths who instigated the phone conversation by telling Wills he was already considering withdrawing the application. According to Griffiths, Wills had encouraged him several months earlier to pursue a city council position.

Svoboda questioned Herboldsheimer on how that previous support for Griffiths was any different than the opinion Wills expressed about Siers. Moreover, the evidence showed Wills indicated a willingness to consider multiple applications rather than stay set on a favorite, Svoboda said.

The defense’s case also addressed Wills’ use of the word “lifestyle” in referring to queer identity, stating the word is “something that Mr. Wills and many in his generation did not know” was offensive to the LGBTQ community. According to Myers, Wills — a 76-year-old — didn’t use the term to offend Griffiths.

Svoboda said the use of “one particular word” is not enough to recall a politician. Rather, it’s something voters should keep in mind during elections, the judge said, praising Herboldsheimer for keeping an eye on elected officials.

“I do appreciate that you are watching, that you care enough about your community to be able to do this,” Svoboda said.

Herboldsheimer said following court proceedings that she respected the judge’s decision.

“I hope that this sends a signal and encourages people if they see wrongdoing to come forth,” Herboldsheimer said. “It’s our duty.”

Wills was appointed to Position 6 on the Ocean Shores City Council in October 2022 and defended the seat in the 2023 election by a single vote. Position 6 will be up for reelection in 2027.

Contact reporter Clayton Franke 406-552-3917 or clayton.franke@thedailyworld.c