City’s legal costs on email lawsuit continue to climb

Costs for the city of Bainbridge Island’s big loss in its legal battle over council member emails continued to grow this week, well after the city agreed to a nearly $500,000 settlement that ended a Superior Court lawsuit over missing and destroyed public records.

Costs for the city of Bainbridge Island’s big loss in its legal battle over council member emails continued to grow this week, well after the city agreed to a nearly $500,000 settlement that ended a Superior Court lawsuit over missing and destroyed public records.

The city paid more than $22,000 in additional legal bills this week for its lawyers on the case, and city officials expect more attorney bills to arrive at city hall in the coming weeks.

Officials announced last week that Bainbridge Island would need to tap three different parts of the budget — including the city council’s contingency fund — to pay the $487,790 in settlement costs to end the public records lawsuit against the city.

The city estimated it had already spent more than $225,000 on legal fees through October. Deputy City Manager Morgan Smith told the council last week that the settlement money was not budgeted, and funds from three separate funds would be used to make the payment.

The city council approved the settlement agreement in early December.

Under the terms of the agreement, reached after an 11-hour marathon session with a mediator in Seattle, Althea Paulson and Bob Fortner will be paid $487,790 for abandoning their lawsuit against the city.

Paulson and Fortner filed suit against the city in September 2013 that claimed the city and Councilman Steve Bonkowski, Ward and then-councilwoman Debbi Lester failed to turn over public records that had been requested under the state’s Public Records Act. The pair of “good government” activists had sought emails that the council members had sent and received on their personal email accounts to fellow council members and others, which Paulson and Fortner noted was a violation of the city’s Governance Manual. The manual requires council members to use their city provided email accounts, and to forward any city related emails sent to them privately to the city for retention.

A Superior Court judge ruled in favor of Paulson and Fortner last May, and harshly criticized Ward and Bonkowski for deleting public records from their email accounts.

As part of the settlement, Ward agreed to resign from the city council. The council was expected to appoint a replacement at a special meeting Thursday.

The checks for the settlement, as well as the invoices for the latest legal fees, were unanimously approved by the council during its routine sign-off on warrant payments on its consent agenda at Tuesday’s business meeting.

There were more obvious reminders of the fallout from the lawsuit this week.

First, a handful of islanders, old friends of Ward and newer acquaintances, praised the recently resigned councilman at the start Tuesday’s council meeting.

Alan Kasper, president of the Bainbridge Island Sportsmen’s Club, said he and Ward became fast friends a few years ago and shared a love of antique side-by-side shotguns and hunting dogs.

Kasper said Ward was a “class act” and a man who kept his promises. He began to choke up when he described Ward’s recent health problems.

“If you want to learn about integrity, respect, honesty and commitment, I suggest you spend some time with Dave,” he said.

City council members have not said much about the lawsuit settlement. But in a letter to the Review this week, Councilman Val Tollefson said the lawsuit was “a very expensive lesson” and noted the suit could have been settled much earlier and at a lower cost to the city.

He also pushed back on criticism of the pair that has arisen in recent weeks by some residents who were upset over the size of the settlement.

Fortner and Paulson should be thanked for holding the city accountable, Tollefson said.

Tollefson said Wednesday he wrote the letter because the public was owed some sort of explanation for the settlement, given its size.

“It felt like the right thing to do for me,” he said.

He said he also hoped to press the council to acknowledge that they must willingly surrender their personal computers in the future if a judge again orders them searched for public records.

Legal fees in the case continue to pile up.

The first attorney bills from Summit Law Group after the settlement agreement was inked last month came in to city hall in mid-December.

The legal firm, which was hired to represent Bonkowski and Ward, submitted bills for $10,977 for work done through November, the month before the settlement agreement was reached.

The city council this week also approved a $10,642 payment to the law firm of Porter Foster Rorick, and $427 to Ogden Murphy Wallace Attorneys. Legal bills for November total more than $22,400.

More bills, covering the city’s lawyers’ fees during the mediation effort, are expected later this month.

 

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