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City of Bainbridge Island hit with lawsuit over missing council members' emails
Two "good government" advocates on Bainbridge Island have filed a lawsuit against the city of Bainbridge Island and council members Steve Bonkowski, David Ward and Debbi Lester, claiming the council members have been conducting city business from their personal email accounts.
Althea Paulson, a Bainbridge Island blogger who writes about city politics, and Bob Fortner, a leader in the successful 2009 campaign to change the city's form of government, filed the Public Records Act lawsuit Tuesday in Kitsap County Superior Court.
The pair said they both filed a public records requests with the city to gain access to council members' emails on the council’s recent dealings with the city’s utilities, but only one council member — Councilwoman Sarah Blossom — provided emails in response to the requests.
Paulson and Fortner said Blossom's emails made it clear that Blossom, Bonkowski, Ward and Lester have been conducting city business by using their personal email accounts.
Paulson and Fortner said it was there was no indication that the other three council members, Anne Blair, Kirsten Hytopoulos and Bob Scales, have used their personal accounts for city business.
Council members have official email accounts set up by the city, and city policy dictates that council members use only their city accounts for city business.
Emails recently released by the city show that council members Bonkowski, Ward, Lester and Blossom have long been using their private email accounts to correspond with the public and get advice on issues before the council.
Paulson and Fortner said the state's open records law requires the city and its council members to publicly release emails that relate to city business.
“The last thing we want to do is sue the city,” said Paulson, the former co-publisher of the Bainbridge Buzz news website. “But the way the Public Records Act is written, we have to sue the city in order to require rogue officials to obey the law."
Paulson said she submitted her request for documents two months ago, and while the city has provided some documents in response, the three council members have not provided their emails.
Paulson recently met with City Manager Doug Schulze and Interim City Attorney Jim Haney in mid-July to resolve the records issue, with no success.
The lawsuit against Bainbridge Island also names Bonkowski, Ward and Lester both personally and in their role as council members.
“These councilpersons have been conducting city business out of public view,” Paulson said.
“They’ve had advice from city attorneys and have received training about their duties as public officials, but they continue to ignore the law. Mr. Bonkowski even admitted in writing that he deleted emails," she said.
"Now, after two months of not responding, they’re asking for still more time to produce the records. They’ve had plenty of time to respond if they intend to do so," Paulson added.
The lawsuit includes a complaint for damages, and Paulson and Fortner are being represented by Daniel Mallove, an attorney and Paulson's husband.
The suit notes that Bonkowski, Ward and Lester are legally obligated to abide by the state's Public Records Act, but haven't.
"Defendants Bonkowski, Ward and Lester have failed and refused to perform their legal obligations as publicly elected members of the Bainbridge Island City Council," the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit asks the court to order the three council members to either produce all responsive emails or submit their computer hard drives for examination.
It also asks for unspecified damages, costs and attorney fees under the Public Records Act, which provides for fines of up to $100 per day for records that are wrongfully withheld, plus attorney fees and costs.
Paulson noted that Washington has strong open government laws that require governments to do the people’s business in the open, and that the law says public servants don’t have the right to decide what the people should know and what they shouldn’t know.
"These council members have left us no choice but to file suit in order to make sure citizens have access to the information necessary to understand how our government does its business,” she said.
Fortner said attempts to get city council members to abide by the law have not worked.
“As citizens who supported the change of government and who expect governance in accordance with established rules, we find that these behaviors, which violate both our values and legal boundaries, can no longer be tolerated," he said.
"Previous efforts by citizens to encourage different behavior has proven unsuccessful. Perhaps the courts will have better effect,” Fortner said.