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Superior court judge rejects attempt to quash search for council members' missing emails

A Kitsap County Superior Court judge refused to put a halt to efforts by two Bainbridge Island government watchdogs to get access to emails sent by Bainbridge council members on their personal email accounts.

Althea Paulson and Robert Fortner filed a lawsuit against the city of Bainbridge Island in September that claimed the city and council members Steve Bonkowski, David Ward and Debbi Lester failed to turn over public records that had been requested under the state's Public Records Act.

At the heart of the lawsuit are emails that were sent to and from council members on their personal email accounts. Paulson and Fortner have repeatedly pointed out that city policy forbids council members from using their personal emails for city business, and the pair have said that Bonkowski and Ward have refused to release emails that should have been disclosed after Paulson and Fortner requested the documents. Bonkowski has also admitted deleting emails from his account that may have been public records.

Dan Mallove, the attorney for Paulson and Fortner, earlier asked the court to issue writs of mandamus that would require Bonkowski and Ward to turn over any remaining emails, and also allow the hard drives from their computers and their personal email accounts to be searched for public records that have not been disclosed.

But Jessica Goldman, the attorney representing the two councilmen, has argued that the city and the council members named in the lawsuit have already conducted extensive searches for records, and an inspection of the council members' computers and email accounts would be an invasion of privacy.

At a hearing Friday, Superior Court Judge Jeanette Dalton declined to quash the request for the writs.

"She basically denied both," Mallove said Friday.

Mallove said the judge also acknowledged that city policy requires council members to use their city-provided email accounts to send and receive emails that center on city business, and not use private email accounts for conducting city business.

"She reiterated the fact that if they use their personal computers for public business, they don't have any privacy rights," Mallove said.

Dalton said Friday that a hearing will be scheduled later to resolve the request for writs.

Mallove has also asked the court to rule that the city has violated the state Public Records Act by its foot-dragging response on releasing emails that were requested before the lawsuit was filed, and for its failure to produce records that council members did not hand over to the city for public release.

A hearing on that part of the lawsuit will be held in late March.

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