Opinion

4-H goat project leads to nightmare for family

You may have read a Bainbridge Island Review article in December 2008 about restraining orders placed against a family whose neighbors were upset about their daughter’s 4-H goat project.

The story described rulings by Bainbridge Island Municipal Court Judge Kathryn Carruthers. The family of Melanie Keenan and Malcom Gander appealed these rulings to Kitsap County Superior Court and all rulings were reversed 17 months later by Judge Russell W. Hartman. (See Kitsap Superior Court Case No. 08-2-03184-7, May 14, 2010.)

This is our side of the story.

In overturning the rulings, the judge put forward that our due process rights were violated; our federal property rights were violated; our city, state and federal agricultural rights were violated; and the city’s Municipal Code and Zoning laws were violated.

Judge Hartman also noted Judge Carruthers’ legal error in even hearing the allegations because the dispute and previously resolved issues arising from it should have been referred to arbitration based on a settlement agreement signed by all parties.

The 2006 agreement originated from a series of frivolous property boundary-adverse possession legal actions against our family by the same neighbors attempting ownership of our surveyed land.

Arbitration was initiated by the neighbors in 2008 shortly after they filed trespassing allegations with police on the advice of their attorney, claiming we were not allowed on our own property in the area of the small easement we granted for ingress and egress.

Island attorney Andy Maron, who appointed himself as arbitrator during mediation, agreed to arbitrate the intent of the original settlement despite our concerns of conflict of interest.

The portion of our property in dispute was previously proposed by officials as a new city road for the neighborhood before we moved to Bainbridge, during the time Maron was on council and served as interim mayor.

So, how did we become involved in such a protracted court case, spend more than $75,000 defending ourselves, lose valuable work contracts as a result of charges, and be subjected to the notion that we were not allowed to use one of our two acres to maintain our daughter’s 4-H goat project?

How could we be subjected to permanent restraining orders that prohibited us under penalty of arrest from using our own land, and face surveillance by our city’s police department?

As we commenced our defense, we requested records from the City of Bainbridge under the Washington State Open Records Act.

The city resisted and as we began to receive a few documents, we realized the inherent nature of small-town politics and how some issues can inappropriately get serious city, police and court attention.

(To date the city has still not produced all of the documents we’ve requested.)

We then had to defend ourselves against numerous allegations, but in the city’s Municipal Court the judge repeatedly denied our rights to even testify on our own behalf. She also would not accept statements the way they had been presented previously.

The police department even accused my husband of a felony charge of violating the restraining order when he walked down a public road to our neighbors’ home so that they could redo statements of support for the court. The felony charge led to us hiring island resident and attorney John Henry Browne.

I was also arrested for violating a restraining order when I followed the instructions of the police officers to follow them to another part of my property. Both charges were proven to be false and were dismissed.

For six years our family has been accused of dozens of additional violations and crimes by local authorities, generated by anonymous and neighbor complaints. All were proven to be false, without merit and dismissed.

As a result the city, fire department, county health department and animal control have inspected our property and found no wrongdoing.

We have some deep, structural governance issues on Bainbridge Island when our city’s regulations and staff are manipulated, and our police can file charges in the local court that violate the basic tenets of the federal Constitution, state and city laws.

I’m writing this opinion piece in the hopes that this doesn’t happen to any other island family.

Melanie Keenan and Malcolm Gander are licensed geologists and hydrogeologists who have contributed their time towards numerous environmental conservation studies on the island for the last nine years.

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