February 2011 should mark the return of the Discovery Bay Salmon Derby, although it may have a new name.
The Gardiner Salmon Derby Association on July 23 was granted summary judgment by Superior Court Judge Craddock Verser over the objections of Jefferson County Fire District 5.
The court ruling, which could be appealed, requires Fire District 5 (Discovery Bay) to turn over all property the association had used to stage the popular salmon derby in February on Presidents Day weekend.
"The court has ordered the derby belongs to the association," said Malcolm Harris, attorney for the derby association.
Acknowledging, "It's been a long, ugly battle," derby association leader Dan Tatum expects to resume the derby in 2011.
"The salmon derby will be on for sure," said Tatum. "We're the same people who have always run (the derby)."
What would have been the 34th such salmon derby in February 2010 was cancelled in December 2009 because Fire District 5 officials claimed ownership of the derby name, property and bank account.
When a settlement could not be reached quickly the organizers pulled the plug on the 2010 derby and the legal tussle ensued.
The derby association was formed in 1973 by residents of the Gardiner area as a fundraiser for the rural volunteer fire department, which later became Jefferson County Fire District 5 serving Discovery Bay in the south and Gardiner in the north.
A state change in wild salmon fishing seasons ended the derby in 1999 but it resurfaced in 2003 with some fresh volunteers. From 2006-2009, the derby (targeting hatchery fish, not wild salmon) association donated $50,000 to Fire District 5 for equipment and to pay for training and other expenses.
By 2007, some Gardiner residents became highly concerned about fire district management and service capabilities, in part because of a continued lack of active volunteer firefighters. Concerns peaked after state auditors concluded that in 2006 and 2007 a district secretary had misappropriated about $77,000 in district money.
Fire Chief Bob Wilson from Quilcene, brought in to help District 5, helped smooth things out but they deteriorated after his untimely death early in 2009. That summer residents of the Gardiner area successfully petitioned, under state law, to have their area withdrawn from District 5 and incorporated into adjacent Clallam County Fire District 3. When the change became official in September 2009, the Clallam district (with a fire hall in Blyn) absorbed the tax base in Gardiner but did not take any District 5 emergency equipment or property.
Association members decided that Jefferson District 5 no longer would be a primary recipient of fishing derby proceeds. Instead, preliminary ideas were to give money to Clallam District 3 and the Diamond Point Volunteer Fire Department. Other area emergency service needs also would be explored, Tatum said at the time.
District 5 commissioners objected to the change and loss of funding and began legal action claiming all rights to and property of the fishing derby, including $20,852.64 in the bank.
Negotiations were attempted, but Tatum, derby leader, announced in December 2009 that the derby planned for February 2010 was being cancelled because of the dispute. The derby had been expected to generate about $15,000 that year.
In March 2010, the association went to Jefferson County Superior Court seeking a summary judgment regarding ownership of personal property.
In a decision filed July 23, Verser - who heard counsel arguments in open court on top of reading declarations from both sides - ruled in favor of the volunteer association.
"The (association) is vested with title to all of the following personal property, free and clear of any claims or interests" of Fire District 5," Verser stated. He supported association attorney Malcolm Harris' contention that a fire protection district's statutory powers do not include the ownership or operation of a salmon derby or any other commercial enterprise.
Verser ordered District 5 to return a 1929 Graham fire truck donated by Gary Bandy (a Gardiner resident who had a fire hall built for District 5) to the association titled in 2003 under Discovery Bay Firefighters Association and currently believed to be in possession of District 5, according to court documents.
The list includes a variety of fishing derby equipment, including digital scales for weighing fish, VHF radio base station and antenna, fish hanging rack, fish display case, landing net, barricade fencing, signs, 100 feet of power cord, four wooden fish boxes and all the files containing association records, believed to be in District 5 possession.
The $20,852.64 had been deposited with the court and is being released to the derby association.
The judge also dismissed District 5's counterclaim against the volunteer association.
The Gardiner Salmon Derby Association has been fully incorporated as a nonprofit although it always operated as a nonprofit, Harris noted.
Leader reporter Allison Arthur contributed to this story.