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Bainbridge to appeal judge's decision that said city violated Public Records Act

The city of Bainbridge Island will appeal a superior judge's decision that ordered the city to search the hard drives of computers used by two council members who withheld public records from two islanders who sought their emails on city business.

The city announced its decision to appeal via a letter to the editor sent Monday, June 16 to the Bainbridge Review.

In it, three council members — Val Tollefson, Wayne Roth and Roger Townsend — spelled out why they supported the decision to appeal.

"We don’t want to jeopardize this progress by involving ourselves in the details of this Public Records Act case," the trio wrote. "However, insofar as the trial court’s ruling deals with the performance of city staff and the basis for legal liability of the city, we believe the court has made some clear mistakes and drawn some unfair and unwarranted conclusions. We believe these errors can be corrected only by having the Court of Appeals take a fresh look at this case."

City officials earlier said that Kitsap County Superior Court Judge Jeanette Dalton had erred in her May 29 ruling that said the city had violated the state's Public Records Act. Dalton ordered the city to search the hard drives of the computers of councilmen Steve Bonkowski and David Ward, and also said the pair who had sued the city over the missing public records should be awarded attorney fees.

Last week, city officials declined to answer questions about whether the ruling would be appealed.

Mayor Anne Blair said the council would not take a public vote on an appeal, and hinted that she viewed any challenge to the decision as a continuation of the lawsuit process.

"It's not an issue that is going to come before the council," Blair said last week.

The lawsuit was filed in Kitsap County Superior Court in August 2013 by Althea Paulson, a Bainbridge blogger who writes about city politics, and Bob Fortner, who helped lead the campaign to change the city's form of government in 2009.

Paulson and Fortner had requested emails on city business that had been sent to the personal email accounts of Bonkowski, Ward and then-councilwoman Debbi Lester.

After a seven-week wait for public records in which only three emails were provided from Ward's personal email account — and none from the email accounts of Bonkowski and Lester — Paulson filed suit. Dan Mallove, the attorney for Paulson and Fortner, asked the court to order the council members to turn over the hard drives of their computers so they could be searched for public records that had not been turned over.

Mallove also noted that the city's Governance Manual bans council members from using their private email accounts for conducting city business.

Lester was dropped from the lawsuit after her term ended and she provided emails from her personal email account in response to the lawsuit.

Bonkowski, however, admitted deleting emails from his personal account, and claimed that any emails he was sent that he did not use or reply to were not actually public records.

Jessica Goldman, the attorney representing Ward and Bonkowski, also said the city and the council members named in the lawsuit had already conducted extensive searches for public records and claimed an inspection of the council members' computers and email accounts would be an invasion of privacy.

In her decision, Dalton disagreed. She said emails that had already been released by the city showed that Ward and Bonkowski "often conducted  city business from their personal email accounts."

"The emails that document this city business activity were never forwarded to the city server, and were instead deleted by Mr. Ward and Mr. Bonkowski, in contravention of both the Governance Manual ... and the Public Records Act itself," Dalton wrote in her decision.

 

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