To the editor:
Last August, we filed a Public Records Act lawsuit against the city of Bainbridge Island and certain individual council persons, after learning they had been conducting city business from their personal email accounts, and had failed to produce these records after receiving our public records request.
As we said in our press release at the time, “The last thing we want to do is sue the city … But the way the Public Records Act is written, we have to sue the city in order to require rogue officials to obey the law.”
We have tried to make clear throughout this litigation that our primary concern was not with individuals on the city’s staff, whom we had found to be cooperative and professional.
It was unlawful activity by the council persons that troubled us, because they have consistently placed themselves above the law and have refused to turn over public records. Council members Dave Ward and Steven Bonkowski have admitted under oath that they deleted emails concerning city business, relying upon their own personal definition of what constitutes a public record, and without seeking advice from the city. In doing so, they ignored guidelines that were provided to them on multiple occasions.
In a 32-page decision issued May 29, Kitsap County Superior Court Judge Jeannette Dalton agreed with us, finding that the council persons’ refusal to turn over the records was of “grave concern for the people of Bainbridge Island.” Judge Dalton found that the city failed to do an adequate search for the requested records as required by law, because even after the city knew the council members were conducting city business on their personal accounts, it did not make any effort to search those accounts. She ruled that the city violated the Public Records Act and ordered the city to pay our attorneys fees and sanctions for the violations.
Before we filed the lawsuit, we met with city officials, including the city manager and the interim city attorney, to try to resolve our request without the need for litigation. That meeting was unsuccessful. After we filed the lawsuit, we offered to dismiss the litigation for no fees or sanctions if the council members would just produce the requested public records. They refused. We have always remained open to dialogue, because we had hoped for a less expensive resolution of the issues.
We are disappointed that the city has chosen to appeal Judge Dalton’s decision. We believe it will be upheld by the appeals court. Additional litigation will add more legal fees, costs and sanctions to this lawsuit on the taxpayer dime. According to news reports, the city already has paid over $175,000 to the lawyers it hired to defend the city and the council members.
More personally, we are incredibly surprised and saddened that three councilpersons, some of whom we have known for years and all of whom we have supported in their endeavors on council, chose to send an inaccurate and divisive letter to the press about this lawsuit today. Their letter ignores the facts of this case, as determined not by us, but by Judge Dalton, after reviewing all the evidence.
They have characterized our lawsuit as one that emerged from emotion and politics. It did not. We took this step reluctantly and only after watching months of flagrant violation of our city’s Governance Manual and the law, despite the objections of council colleagues and many citizens.
Judge Dalton’s decision is crucially important because it reaffirms the public policy of the state of Washington that government employees and officials must do the public’s business in public, in accordance with well-established rules of governance.
This is a lawsuit about good government, not emotion or politics. We had hoped that all members of council and the city’s administration would be committed to principles of accountability and openness, but nowhere in the council members’ letter today are those principles mentioned. Instead, they completely ignore the behavior of the defendant council members and focus on outward appearances and a concern with cultivating a reputation of cohesion on the council. We regret that by issuing the letter, the council has done the very thing it sought to avoid: jeopardize the progress it has made in gaining community respect and trust.
Regardless of the intentions of these council persons or of the City, we will continue this litigation to its conclusion, because we believe Judge Dalton was right on both the law and on the important public policy this case presents.
ALTHEA PAULSON AND BOB FORTNER