Insurance pool experts brief city council on avoiding lawsuits

While a few Bainbridge Island City Council members sit on the wrong end of a public records lawsuit, those who write the checks for the trial had a few tips and hints for veteran and rookie council members alike on avoiding the courthouse.

Council members were briefed on best practices to avoiding liability in an hour-long presentation by the Washington Cities Insurance Authority earlier this month. The discussion ranged from maintaining a purely legislative role in the policy making process to being mindful of written communications in email, and on social media websites such as Twitter and Facebook.

The Washington Cities Insurance Authority is a municipal risk insurance pool, and represents 164 cities and public entities.

WCIA staff provides each member city with on-site risk management advice, loss control inspections and trainings on specific issues.

The presentation is timely for both new and veteran council members as the city is currently fighting a lawsuit involving councilmen Steve Bonkowski and David Ward, who used their personal email accounts last June to discuss city business.

“What do you think the ‘e’ in email stands for?” asked Lisa Roberts of WCIA during Wednesday’s meeting. “We like to think it stands for evidence.”

Roberts explained that council members should be mindful that as a public official, everything they say, write and do could be considered newsworthy and is subject to a public records request. She also warned members to keep city business on city-issued email accounts to avoid the WCIA having to subpoena personal computers.

“Everything in a public official capacity that you write or say could be Exhibit Number 1,” Roberts said. “My mom used to say, if you don’t want the information in the newspaper than maybe you shouldn’t say it. I think that’s a good rule of thumb.”

Another common mistake, Roberts said, is when council members stray from their legislative role under the council-manager form of government.

In one example of an issue the WCIA had to handle, Roberts said, a new council member threatened to fire city staff who did not follow the council’s direction.

“The city attorney had to basically take the council member aside and say you can’t do this,” Roberts said. “They had to actually impose a policy where the council couldn’t even talk to the staff because it was considered harassment.”

According to a WCIA risk assessment, Bainbridge’s history of legal disputes ranks the city one of the most costly communities of its size.

Between 2008 and 2012, the public safety sector of Bainbridge Island incurred $2 million in insurance claims.

The average cost of public safety claims for governments similar in size to Bainbridge is $203,000.

Additionally, Bainbridge’s total cost of insurance claims between 2008 and 2012 is $2.7 million, the bulk of which stem from the Ostling family’s lawsuit against the city of Bainbridge Island in 2010 after Bainbridge police fatally shot a mentally ill man while responding to a 911 call.

In stark contrast, the total average insurance cost of communities the size of Bainbridge is $700,000.

This has amounted to Bainbridge Island having the highest insurance rate of the 20 cities compared in the risk assessment.

The city pays $2.15 per worker hour. Centralia currently pays the lowest rate of the cities cited, at $0.09 per worker hour.


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