COVID-inspired resolution finds little support on council

Bainbridge City Councilwoman Rasham Nassar

Bainbridge City Councilwoman Rasham Nassar

A resolution warning of risks to democracy and civil rights because of the COVID-19 outbreak got a rocky reception at this week’s meeting of the Bainbridge Island City Council.

The resolution, which reaffirms the civil rights in the Constitution, was written by Councilwoman Rasham Nassar, who said its message relates “directly to the times we are in.”

The resolution states the “Bainbridge Island City Council recognizes the evidential risk to civil liberties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, including abridging citizens’ rights to free speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of expression.”

Nassar’s resolution also said the coronavirus “pandemic has caused severe disruptions to democracy and governance worldwide and locally, including placing limits on constitutional rights to assembly, curtailing public participation in government, and suspension of elections.”

Councilmembers disagreed, however, that democracy was at risk on Bainbridge Island. And some strongly opposed the resolution, which had been promoted by an incendiary email by former councilman Ron Peltier, Nassar’s biggest ally on the council.

Councilman Joe Deets said he wanted to see an example of imperiled democracy on Bainbridge before the resolution would get his support.

“Bainbridge Island? Not that I’m aware of,” Deets said.

“I personally don’t feel like it’s the most useful use of our time on council,” added Councilman Kol Medina. “Why are we going to spend a bunch of time on this?”

“I don’t see a need. I don’t see a problem in front of us on the island,” he said.

Medina added that the council had just had a discussion on its work plans for 2020, and had talked about things it wouldn’t be able to take up.

There was another reason, as well.

Medina said he couldn’t support a resolution that was being used in a divisive and inflammatory way, and pointed to the email sent by Peltier to others that asked them to support Nassar’s resolution and “democratic values on our city council.”

“There’s a connection between transparency in city government and the constitutionally guaranteed rights of freedom of speech and freedom of association,” Peltier wrote in the May 18 email.

“You need look no further than our current city council to see these democratic values under attack, motivated by a desire to reinforce group-think and an exclusive club mentality,” Peltier wrote.

Medina said the email was “extremely defamatory” toward the council.

Peltier’s email caught some by surprise.

“Oh, wow. That is so troubling to hear,” Deets said.

“I find that offensive,” Deets continued, and said he was pulling his support for the resolution.

“If that’s what was behind this initiative — no,” he said.

Councilman Michael Pollock said the council didn’t have to respond to every comment made in the community, and that it should expect to get feedback.

“People do have a right to say things,” Pollock said.

This was different, said Councilwoman Kirsten Hytopoulos.

“This feels pretty personal,” she said, adding that she was personally named in the email.

The council must respond when such false allegations are raised, Hytopoulos said.

“We need to respond to them when blatant lies are stated,” Hytopoulos said, and added she couldn’t see a positive motive behind the resolution.

Nassar said she would bring the resolution back with revisions, but some on the council said they weren’t interested in taking it up again.

Beyond city hall, Nassar’s resolution prompted a barbed response based on the first-term councilwoman’s recent history with core constitutional principles.

Last year, Nassar tried to get a court order to get two citizens banned from city hall who had been outspoken critics of Nassar’s votes on land-use issues after it was discovered that illegal development had taken place on her Bainbridge property.

That development activity, done without permits, led to code enforcement actions against Nassar and her husband and a warning that the case would be referred to the county prosecutor if she did not fix her permitting problems.

Nassar later alleged the two islanders who had complained about her lack of permits had been “threatening and intimidating” to her when they showed up at city council meetings, and that one of them had trespassed on her property.

The pair, David Dunn and Brian Wilkinson, became Nassar’s most vocal public critics after unpermitted development on the councilwoman’s property came to public light in January 2019. In an email to the city soon after, Dunn said elected officials should follow the same rules faced by property owners, and called for an independent investigation into Nassar’s permitting troubles. And, as part of a group called Bainbridge Island Citizens for Ethical Government, Dunn and Wilkinson sent a letter to the city manager, city attorney and other officials that recounted how the city ramped up its regulations on land development for island properties, and asked the council to hold Nassar accountable after she had repeatedly violated “the strict legislation she promoted as good for the rest of us.”

Dunn is a former detective for the Seattle Police Department and Wilkinson is a Bainbridge firefighter.

The pair is currently suing the city, and Nassar is at the center of the lawsuit.

Dunn and Wilkinson have claimed that officials failed to adequately respond to requests for public records from Nassar’s personal cellphone. Nassar, who was using her personal cellphone for official city business, later claimed her phone was destroyed when her young son put it in a can of olives.

Early last year, Nassar filed two petitions for anti-harassment protection orders against Dunn and Wilkinson in Kitsap County District Court, and asked a judge for a court order that would keep them away from city hall and her home. She also asked that the pair not be allowed to attend city council meetings.

Judge Jeffrey J. Jahns dismissed both requests, citing a “lack of proof” of harassment.

In his order of denial, the judge noted that a person has a constitutional right to walk on public property, including sidewalks and streets, including in residential areas.

“[Nassar’s] speculation that [Dunn] must have trespassed on her residence property is just that — speculation. No evidence in support of her allegation that [Dunn] did trespass on her property was presented,” Jahns said in his decision.

The judge also strongly pushed back on her request that Dunn be banned from council meetings or city hall.

“[Dunn] has a First Amendment constitutional right to petition government for the redress of grievances,” Jahns wrote in his decision. “This right to petition, along with the constitutional right to freedom of speech, are bedrock principles under the American system of government.”

“[Nassar] is seeking a prior restraint order, banning [Dunn] from petitioning Bainbridge Island government for redress of any grievances he may have with city government now or in the future,” the judge added. “A judicial order placing a prior restraint on a First Amendment right is the most serious and least tolerable infringement on the First Amendment.”

The judge denied both requests for an anti-harassment order and dismissed both cases in January 2019.

Dunn said Tuesday the city has had trouble with free speech protections, thanks to Nassar.

“The city of Bainbridge went to incredible lengths to try and silence me. After raising complaints with the city and being given assurances that I had no basis to fear retaliation, the city, and Councilmember Nassar, in particular sought to ban me from city hall,” Dunn said.

“The city followed up that attack on my free speech rights with an inquiry to the Kitsap County Prosecutor’s Office regarding a criminal prosecution for intimidating a public servant,” he added.

“Basically, after they couldn’t get me kicked out of city hall, they inquired, unsuccessfully, about sending me to prison for up to 10 years. The city of Bainbridge is happy to let people exercise their freedom of speech so long as that speech is what the city wants to hear,” he added.

“Good luck and watch your back if you disagree,” Dunn said.

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