Bainbridge hopes to quash public records lawsuit

Bainbridge Island is asking Kitsap County Superior Court to dismiss the lawsuit against the city that’s being pursued by the wife of Bainbridge’s last city manager.

Lisa Schulze, a former island resident who moved to Banning, California after her husband Doug Schulze took over as that town’s city manager, filed a lawsuit against the last fall, claiming that Bainbridge officials illegally withheld official public records that were sent and received by Councilman Ron Peltier on his personal cellphone.

The lawsuit has been pending in Kitsap County Superior Court, but the outside attorney who is representing the city recently asked the court for a summary judgment in the case, which would result in the lawsuit being dismissed before a trial.

Kari Lester, an attorney with the Seattle law firm of Ogden Murphy Wallace, said in her summary judgment request that the city had made a good faith effort to find and release all records that Lisa Schulze had asked for, and had presented Schulze with five installments of records from Peltier, a former councilman who had an acrimonious relationship with Doug Schulze, who was Bainbridge’s city manager before and after Peltier was elected to the city council in 2015.

Dispute over texts

Last year, Lisa Schulze had submitted a records request to the city to obtain all text messages and other communications sent by Peltier for a four-month period between September 2018 and January 2019.

Schulze, in the lawsuit, said the city failed to provide records as required under Washington state’s Public Records Act and noted that Peltier had been using his personal cellphone, rather than a city-issued device, to conduct official city business as a councilman.

Peltier reportedly told city officials he had searched his personal cellphone for records after he was notified of Schulze’s request, but Schulze said the city had not provided all of the records it needed to hand over, and claimed Peltier’s search of his personal cellphone was inadequate.

Schulze dismissed an affidavit that Peltier signed that described his search for the records, and called it “woefully nonsensical.”

But in her court filing asking for summary judgment, Lester acknowledged that Peltier had been offered a city-issued cellphone but refused to use it, and instead used his own phone.

Peltier, in court documents, said the decision came down to climate change.

“I just didn’t want to own another device that consumes resources, has a carbon footprint, I have to maintain, keep track of. That was it,” Peltier explained.

Peltier also said he was not going to use his personal cellphone for city business, but acknowledged that he did use it to send texts, and that people would send him texts to his cellphone that could be considered public records.

Peltier said he had a habit of forwarding all of his texts on city business from his personal cell phone to his city email address.

“I just figured I could basically live without doing any texting related to city business, although people did continue to send me texts that I forwarded to my — immediately forwarded to my city email,” Peltier said in court documents. “And occasionally I would send a text … in situations where … it would be helpful to be able to send a text and then just make sure I forward that right away to my city email.”

According to Lester, the city’s attorney, Peltier forwarded all of his text messages and emails from his personal phone and personal email accounts that related to city business after Schulze made her two public records requests last year, and that Peltier had retained all his messages and had them backed up on his iMac computer that was synced to his iPhone.

In her request for summary judgment, Lester asked for the lawsuit to be dismissed “with prejudice,” which would prevent it from being refiled at a later date.

Bad blood

The roots of the lawsuit stretch back to the departure of former city manager Doug Schulze and his move to Banning in 2018.

Schulze, in a farewell interview with a Bremerton newspaper, said that his bad relationship with Peltier was one of the reasons he was leaving his Bainbridge job.

Peltier was incensed by the newspaper story, and later filed two ethics complaints against Schulze with the International City Manager’s Association. (The association, which represents city managers and other professionals in local government management, eventually dismissed Peltier’s complaint and said no ethical violation had occurred.)

In February 2019, Lisa Schulze filed an ethics complaint against Peltier with Bainbridge’s Ethics Board after she discovered that Peltier had contacted Banning City Councilman Don Peterson after her husband took over as Banning’s city manager, and Peltier shared information with Peterson about Bainbridge’s former manager that was then used to attack Doug Schulze on Facebook.

Schulze complained that Peltier had launched an ongoing campaign of harassment against the Schulzes, and in its ruling on the complaint, the city’s Ethics Board agreed.

Ethics officials called Peltier’s behavior “unprofessional,” “unacceptable” and “bullying, pure and simple.”

“In the simplest terms possible, the Ethics Board’s opinion is: stop this harassing behavior,” the board said in its report.

Settlement rejected

Schulze offered to settle the lawsuit with the city in a private offer made last month.

Nicolas Power, the attorney representing Schulze, noted in the proposed settlement letter that Bainbridge had been on the losing end of a public records lawsuit in 2013.

In that case, the city was sued by two Bainbridge residents after it was discovered that multiple city council members were using their personal email accounts to conduct public business, and two councilmen named in the lawsuit deleted public records from their personal email accounts that had been sought by the public.

The city eventually settled the case for $487,790, but the cost to the city was much more, and included hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on outside attorneys who were hired to help fight the lawsuit, as well as staff time and other costs.

Power, in his letter, said Schulze wanted the city to adopt an ordinance that would prohibit councilmembers from using privately-owned personal devices to conduct the public’s business, and instead use city-supplied devices “except in emergent circumstances.”

“Even after the city’s stinging $487,000 loss in Paulson [the earlier public records lawsuit] and the resultant adoption of Resolution 2015-17 that required council members forward any text message received on a private device to a city-owned account, it is evident that such has not become the consistent practice of members,” Powers wrote. “This needs to be fixed.”

“Given the city’s history such an ordinance simply makes sense,” he added.

If the city adopted the ordinance within 90 days, Power added in his March 5 offer, “my client would be willing to voluntarily dismiss her lawsuit provided that she is paid an amount of $40,000 that includes all penalties and costs.”

“I hope that the city would appreciate this civic-minded low-cost settlement and be in communication with my office on how we may wrap this up,” Power concluded.

Bainbridge City Attorney Joe Levan said the city declined the settlement offer.

In a statement to The Review, Levan noted the summary judgment motion that had been filed in the lawsuit and added, “the city is optimistic that the lawsuit will be dismissed on the merits.”

A hearing on the motion for summary judgment has been set for May 15 in Kitsap County Superior Court.

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