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UPDATE | Lawsuit continues, but Bainbridge mayor happy at dismissal of three council members as defendants
Bainbridge Island Mayor Steve Bonkowski said he was happy to get a partial decision on a public records lawsuit against the city that means three council members, Bonkowski included, would no longer be named as defendants in the court case.
Kitsap County Superior Court Jeanette Dalton ruled Friday that three Bainbridge council members — Bonkowski, David Ward and Debbi Lester — would be dropped from a public records lawsuit that also named the city of Bainbridge Island.
The state's Public Records Act, Dalton said, does not allow lawsuits against government employees in their individual capacities. As such, Dalton dismissed the three council members from the lawsuit.
Dalton's decision was tendered Friday but received by lawyers in the case Monday.
The lawsuit was filed in September by Althea Paulson and Bob Fortner against the city and Bonkowski, Ward and Lester. Paulson and Fortner filed suit after the city did not release public records consisting of emails sent and received by the three council members on their personal email accounts.
The lawsuit will continue, but without the three council members as individual defendants.
"I'm pleased that that portion of the lawsuit is now behind us," Bonkowski said.
"The rest of the lawsuit is still pending and I can't comment on it," he added.
Ward and Lester did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment late Monday.
The judge's decision was not one-sided, however.
Dalton also ruled that the personal emails sent by the three council members that focused on city business were not private communications and must be released.
Attorneys for Bonkowski, Ward and Lester cited the right to privacy and argued during a hearing in September that the emails should not be turned over to the public.
Dalton said those emails were clearly subject to public disclosure under the state's Public Records Act.
"Government employees and public officials who conduct business on private computers cannot reasonably expect those records to be classified as private," the judge said in her decision.
Dalton's ruling sets up a conference discussion in the coming weeks between the judge and attorneys on both sides of the case to see if the hard drives of the personal computers of Bonkowski, Ward and Lester should be turned over to the city and examined for public records that have not been released. Paulson and Fortner have noted that they have received emails that prove the three council members have withheld some emails from public review.
Bonkowski said Monday that city officials have continued to turn over public records that were requested by Paulson and Fortner.
"I believe that each one of the council members has been asked by the city to provide those public records," he said.
"I know I have and it's my understanding that the other two have done exactly the same thing and provided the records that have been requested," Bonkowski said.