Whistleblower on Councilwoman Nassar’s permit problems worried about retaliation after ‘bogus’ claims

The city hall employee behind the code compliance complaint that ensnared City Councilwoman Rasham Nassar in legal trouble with the city of Bainbridge Island said she filed her complaint anonymously because she was concerned about “possible retaliation” from the councilwoman.

But that’s exactly what happened after Nassar and her husband later discovered her identity, the city worker told the Review.

Lara Lant is a permit specialist for the city of Bainbridge Island and works in the city’s planning department.

Lant told the Review in a recent interview that she is a lifelong islander and has lived since 1976, about a quarter mile from the property now owned by Nassar and her husband, Trenton Riely-Gibbons.

She said when she saw “unlawful development” on the couple’s property in January 2018, Lant felt a duty to report it via the “See Click Fix” portal on the city’s website where residents can file online complaints.

In her online complaint, Lant wrote: “Unpermitted structure in a wetland buffer being used as living space. Structure has electricity and wood stove. Not sure what plumbing or electric if any…”

Scandal ensues

The complaint prompted a storm of controversy around Nassar, a first-term councilwoman who had been elected to office in 2017 after running a campaign that emphasized her environmentalism.

The complaint eventually led to a lawsuit in Kitsap County Superior County against the city over public records and Nassar’s use of her private cell phone for city business — which Nassar claimed was destroyed after her son soaked the phone in a can of olives — as well as an unsuccessful attempt by Nassar to get anti-harassment protection orders in Kitsap County District Court against two of her most vocal critics and get them banned from city hall.

Lant said she filed the complaint “as a concerned private citizen from my home computer” and said she stayed anonymous because she was worried about retaliation.

“Because I am a city employee who works in the Department of Planning and Community Development, I also did not want to take any chances on jeopardizing my employment by identifying myself,” Lant added.

Lant also said she told her manager, director, and the city attorney about her complaint about “unlawful development” on Nassar’s property right after she submitted the complaint “in an abundance of caution.”

Lant said she also told higher-ups at city hall that if any issues came across her desk at the city concerning the Nassar/Gibbons property, she would recuse myself.

Quiet before the storm

But the complaint alleging unpermitted development on the councilwoman’s property remained under the public’s radar for nearly a year, until the city released records in January 2019 that included Lant’s anonymous complaint and the extended attempts by city officials to get the Nassar and Gibbons to comply with city development regulations.

Documents from early 2018 show that code violations on Nassar’s property were investigated from February through May of last year, and the city determined in late June 2018 that possible code violations had occurred. Nassar and Gibbons were given a “Warning of Violation & Order to Correct,” and were told to stop all work in environmentally sensitive “critical areas” on their property. They were also ordered to apply for and obtain permits for the work that had been done on their land, and to also submit a restoration plan to the city.

Nassar and Gibbons did not apply for permits until the city threatened legal action, according to public records released by the city.

In a letter sent to the couple Aug. 30, 2018, the city asked Nassar and Gibbons to apply for permits or remove the unpermitted structure that had been built on their property “or the city will move forward with enforcement action by referring the matter to the Kitsap County Prosecutor.”

The couple finally applied for an “after-the-fact” building permit on Sept. 5, 2018, records show.

Nassar downplayed the allegations of illegal development when they became public, and the councilwoman claimed the development on her property was “grandfathered” and she said the farmland, her primary residence, primary and secondary driveways, yard, and storage shed/well pump house on the property were in “historically disturbed areas.”

Work that had been done on the property in the buffer to a critical area, she told officials, was done after a tree fell on the shed in the winter of 2014.

After news reports of the couple’s permitting troubles were published, some residents called on Nassar to resign from the council and questioned her votes on land-use matters, given that work had been done on property that did not follow the city’s development regulations.

Still no permits

Records recently released by the city indicate the couple had still not obtained permits for the work on their property as recently as Oct. 16. Gibbons has requested from the city, and received, extensions to the schedule that had been set by city officials for code compliance.

Documents also show the city sent Nassar and Gibbons a second “Warning of Violation & Order to Correct” notice for two code violations on June 5, which noted that unpermitted work on the property had not been included in the couple’s after-the-fact permit application for their rebuilt workshop/storage shed, and that trees appeared to have been removed from a wetland or wetland buffer, and that a wetland delineation report had not been provided to the city.

Nassar and Gibbons did not respond to earlier requests by the Review for comment on their permitting issues.

The couple has repeatedly claimed the code compliance complaint, as well as ethics complaints that were also filed against Nassar, were politically motivated.

Not political

Lant, the city whistleblower who filed the complaint that led to city inspections of the Nassar/Gibbons property, said she was not motivated by politics when she filed her online complaint about illegal development on the councilwoman’s land.

“It was not political. I kind of chuckle at that,” Lant said.

Instead, it was a case of people not abiding by city regulations — no matter who they were.

“For me, it was just what was supposed to happen, and what was happening. I don’t really care who you were,” Lant said.

Lant said she is a frequent walker, and expanded activity on Nassar’s property drew her attention during one of her routine strolls in her neighborhood.

“I walk, walk, walk, walk, walk. And I have walked in these areas for many, many years,” Lant said.

“And when these folks moved onto the property, there was a lot of immediate changes to the landscape. But, hey, you buy a piece of property, you make changes to the landscape. That’s OK,” Lant said.

“But they were making more changes and more changes that started to become — not necessarily impacting me directly — but certainly noticeable and changing the character of that little corner. And granted, I’m not a world traveler; I haven’t lived in many places. This is my tiny little world. So I see this little corner and I’m like, ‘Huh. Who are all these folks who are walking down Sands Road with a rucksack on their back? Oh, they are going to their [Nassar and Gibbons’] house. Oh, they’re farming interns. OK. Where do these farm interns live all summer? Probably in a tiny house or in an RV or somewhere else.”

Lant said as time went on, she saw even more changes on the property. She filed her complaint after seeing what looked like a new home, with smoke coming out of a chimney, in an environmentally sensitive area. Nassar and Gibbons later said it was a “tiny home” on a trailer, and that it was moved off the property last year.

“They looked like they were pretty substantive; having a little house and a chimney, and smoke, seemed like somebody put a lot of effort in, because it wasn’t just like a little yurt that was going to come down with your hoop tent later,” Lant recalled.

Lant said she knew there was a wetland nearby — she recalled playing in the creek as a kid — and said her work in the planning department made her realize “there’s just no way that that would be OK.”

No apparent progress

Fast forward to late June, after another walk through the neighborhood, Lant told the Review she “observed what appeared to me to be continuing code violations on the Nassar/Gibbons property.”

Outside her city job, Lant submitted another Click Fix complaint on June 26 about the Gibbons property, and this time she attached her name to the complaint.

Lant said she was soon contacted by the city’s human resources department, and she was told Gibbons claimed Lant was a city employee at the time she made her online complaints, and alleged a policy violation of the city’s employee manual.

The city soon cleared Lant of any improper action — determining she was acting on her own time as a private citizen — but Lant said she was told that Gibbons had subsequently filed a formal ethics complaint where he accused Lant of violations of the city’s code of ethics, trespassing, using her position and authority as a staff member to influence public opinion about their ongoing personal property matters, intentionally providing misleading information, and harassment.

Lant said she hired an attorney.

The harassment, she said, was going the other way — against her.

Lant recalled how a Bainbridge police officer came to her door in September, and police said Nassar had reported a trespass and suspicious incident the year before, and asked about the photograph she added to her June 2019 See Click Fix complaint.

Lant said the photo was taken by someone who wasn’t trespassing — and it wasn’t her, she told city officials.

An outside probe

The city responded to the ethics complaint by hiring Rebecca Dean, a Seattle attorney who specializes in employment disputes, to investigate.

In a report labeled “confidential,” the investigation, completed Oct. 16, Dean said she could not find evidence that support Gibbon’s accusations.

“There is no evidence that Lant acted in any capacity other than her private status as a city of Bainbridge Island citizen, or made any attempt to influence the city’s permit, code enforcement, or Ethics Board processes,” Dean wrote in the report.

Gibbons also tried to claim that Lant’s complaint about the work on the property was false, but the investigator said that wasn’t true.

Instead, Lant’s claim that there was “unpermitted structures on the property” proved to be true, Dean said in her report.

“As previously noted,” Dean wrote, “the city had cited Gibbons for unpermitted structures on June 5, 2019.”

Dean’s report also notes that as the city’s code enforcement efforts continued, additional problems were discovered on the property.

Those came to light as a changeover occurred in the ranks of the city’s code enforcement position, and a new code enforcement officer took over for Bainbridge.

Dean noted that the city’s new code enforcement officer visited the property on Jan. 8, “and listed seven additional apparent violations of the city permit requirements.”

Another “Warning of Violation” soon followed.

Relief and anger

Dean, who was paid $290 an hour for the investigation, interviewed Lant, the city’s interim planning director, the city’s code enforcement officer, and the chairwoman of the city’s Ethics Board during her investigation. Billing records submitted to the city show the investigation cost Bainbridge at least $10,185.

Lant said she was relieved when the investigation was over.

“I was very anxious,” she said, and added that Dean was very thorough in her questioning.

“She had me second guessing everything I was saying. To the point where I had to slap myself and realize, ‘I am OK. I am correct. Everything I am saying is the truth. Snap out of it.’

“She ran me through a good two-plus hours of questions and then going over and over really specific, specific questions. How I normally would walk down the street? What do I normally look at?”

The investigation shows that Dean herself visited Nassar and Gibbon’s property, to see how much of the property could be seen from the street.

Lant said she was surprised to find out about the ethics complaint against her, as well as the report to police that she had trespassed on the property to take a photo that was included with the complaint about unpermitted development on the Nassar/Gibbons property.

“My first thought was, what are they hiding? What are they so afraid of that they are trying to squash me so hard? It’s like they are being very defensive,” Lant said.

The continued complaints were harassment, Lant said, and she hired an attorney to represent her.

In an Aug. 2 letter to Gibbons, Daniel Mallove, Lant’s attorney, said that Lant had only filed her second See Click Fix report after 18 months went by after her first complaint and she didn’t see any “significant action to remediate the numerous potential code issues identified by the city concerning your property.”

Mallove said Lant had acted as a “concerned neighbor and private citizen,” which was her right.

“Despite the city’s finding that Ms. Lant had the right as a private citizen to report potential code issues with your property, you elected to continue to harass her and wrongfully escalated your actions against herby filing with the city a formal ethics complaint agains her.”

Mallove demanded that Gibbons “immediately withdraw your wrongful ethics complain and cease and desist from making any further complaints or defamatory statements about Ms. Lant.

“If you refuse to do so, Ms. Lant has authorized me to pursue all appropriate legal remedies against you,” Mallove added.

In a response, Nicholas Brown, Gibbons’ attorney, said Gibbons would not withdraw his ethics complaint and defended Gibbons’ claims as accurate. He also said Gibbons had done nothing wrong or illegal in asking the city to investigate a potential ethics violation.

Still waiting

Lant said she still hopes that Nassar and Gibbons will abide by the city’s development regulations.

“As a neighbor of Nassar-Gibbons, I am concerned that they have failed to complete many of the city-ordered remediation and enforcement actions,” Lant said.

“As a resident of the city of Bainbridge Island and the Central Ward, I’m dismayed that an elected official like Rasham Nassar appears to believe the Bainbridge Island Municipal Code doesn’t apply to her. And, as an employee of the city of Bainbridge Island, I’m angry,” she added. “Nassar/Gibbons’ bogus complaints against me have caused me to incur substantial legal expenses to defend my rights as a private citizen, they have wrongfully challenged my professional integrity, and their bogus and harassing actions against me may also have created potential unease for my co-workers (building inspectors, plans examiners, code compliance officers) who now have to worry about what actions Nassar/Gibbons may take against them simply for doing their jobs.”

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