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Posts Tagged ‘Public Records Act’

Last week, Council member Steven Bonkowski sent a letter to the press, trying to rehabilitate his reputation after his unlawful and costly violations of the Public Records Act. We sent the letter below to the Bainbridge City Council, the City Manager and the City Attorney. 

Dear Council, Mr. Schulze, and Ms. Marshall:

We read Steven Bonkowski’s letter to Inside Bainbridge this week, in which he attempts to re-litigate arguments he lost in court. His false statements are so significant that we think it’s important to correct them in writing. We also want to express our alarm that as a sitting member of the Bainbridge City Council, Mr. Bonkowski continues to substitute his own incorrect interpretation of the law for the judgment of two courts, suggesting that he is within his rights to continue the unlawful behavior that has cost the city so much money.

The following are false statements by Mr. Bonkowski:

Bonkowski: “I want the community to know that I did not conduct city business from my private email account, and I did turn over my emails to the city in a timely manner for the public records request.”

The facts: Kitsap County Superior Court Judge Jeanette Dalton held that the documents we sought were “related to the financial information that Mr. Bonkowski discussed at the June 5, 2013 meeting, and thus do come within the realm of ‘public records.’” In fact, when Judge Dalton discussed Mr. Bonkowski’s flawed reasoning in determining what constitutes a public record, she wrote the criticism that has been so often repeated in the press: “The Council members knew well what the Governance Manual requires, and any hesitation by them in turning over such emails is a grave concern for the people of Bainbridge Island.”

Moreover, Mr. Bonkowski did not turn over his emails in a timely manner, because, as Judge Dalton found, he “admitted to deleting records that were responsive to the PRA requests.”

The Court of Appeals supported Judge Dalton’s positions, writing that Bonkowski and Ward “undisputedly violated the Governance Manual by using their personal accounts for city business, by failing to forward emails received on their personal accounts to City servers, and by deleting emails which constituted public records, thus making it impossible for the City to adequately respond to Paulson and Fortner’s PRA requests.” (more…)

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Bainbridge City Council member and Deputy Mayor Val Tollefson wrote a letter to the editor, published on Inside Bainbridge yesterday, expressing his views on our lawsuit and the core importance of open government. It’s a welcome public statement from someone who was not on the Council when we filed the suit. As one of the plaintiffs, I can confirm his statement that “this suit could have been settled much earlier and cheaper but for the insistence but for the insistence by the involved Councilmembers that their Constitutional right to privacy was paramount to their obligation to the City.” I also agree with the the other views he expressed in this letter, particularly the importance of transparency in government.

Bainbridge Island recently settled a lawsuit brought by two of our citizens claiming that the City violated the Washington Public Records Act. The suit involved delays and ultimately failure of two members of the Council to produce email messages that they had received concerning City business on their personal email accounts. This suit was a very expensive lesson. The money spent should have been used for a constructive purpose for our City. Since the taxpayers won’t see any tangible benefit from these tax dollars, they are at least entitled to some comment. So here goes:

  1. The use of personal email accounts for City business was against City policy. This suit demonstrated clearly the problems that can result, and the City has tightened procedures to ensure that everyone doing business on behalf of the City has access to and knows they must use a City email account.
  2. This suit could have been settled much earlier and cheaper but for the insistence by the involved Councilmembers that their Constitutional right to privacy was paramount to their obligation to the City. I will ask the Council to take steps to ensure that Councilmembers agree that service to the City requires a reasonable limitation on that claim to privacy.
  3. Compliance with the Public Records Act and the Open Meetings Act are at the core of the City’s obligation to provide good, transparent service to the community. The citizens who brought this recent lawsuit performed an invaluable service to the community at great personal expense. Bob Fortner and Althea Paulson should be thanked for insisting that the City be held to account.

—Val Tollefson City Council, North Ward

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Three Council members, Val Tollefson, Wayne Roth and Roger Townsend, sent this letter to the press this morning on City of Bainbridge Island Executive Department letterhead. Although I am not aware of any Council vote taken to approve this letter, it appears to be the City’s official statement, sent out by City press release. It is also posted on the City’s website. 

As many already know, the Kitsap County Superior Court recently issued a ruling in a Public Records Act lawsuit brought last year by two Bainbridge Island citizens against the City and two current members of the City Council. The City has decided to ask the Court of Appeals to review the trial court’s ruling. As the three members of the City Council who were not members of the Council last year, we thought it important to share our justification for supporting this decision.

This case began at a time last year when the emotions of a number of Bainbridge Islanders, both on and off the City Council, were high. To a casual observer it would have been clear that there was little trust and collegiality among some members of the Council, and there were a number of Island interest groups who had little faith in some members of the Council or indeed, in the Council and City government as a whole. (more…)

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Here’s the press release we sent out this morning. We received Judge Dalton’s opinion late Friday afternoon. I’ve attached her opinion at the end of the post. The Bainbridge Review’s article is here. The Inside Bainbridge article is here.

Kitsap Superior Court Judge Jeanette Dalton ruled Friday that the City of Bainbridge Island violated the Public Records Act (PRA) by failing to turn over emails from the personal email accounts of council members David Ward and Steven Bonkowski, after public records requests were made by Islanders Althea Paulson and Robert Fortner. Judge Dalton awarded monetary penalties, attorneys fees and costs to Paulson and Fortner, who filed suit last August. Ward and Bonkowski are also required to turn over their personal computers to the City to be searched for missing emails.

Paulson and Fortner made separate requests beginning in June 2013 for public records relating to the City-run water utility. The City produced responsive records that were stored on the City’s server. In addition, council member Sarah Blossom turned over emails from her personal email account showing that Blossom, Ward, Bonkowski and council member Debbi Lester had been conducting city business from their personal accounts. (more…)

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This morning Bob Fortner and I sent out the following press release:

Bainbridge residents Althea Paulson and Bob Fortner filed a Public Records Act lawsuit in Kitsap County Superior Court today against the City of Bainbridge Island, and city council members Steven Bonkowski, David Ward and Debbi Lester. Bonkowski, Ward and Lester have been named in the suit both personally and in their role as councilpersons.

Paulson and Fortner made separate requests under the state Public Records Act for records about the council’s recent dealings with the city’s utilities. When councilperson Sarah Blossom produced responsive emails from her personal email account, it became apparent that Bonkowski, Ward, Lester and Blossom have been conducting city business from their personal email accounts.

Council members are given a city email address and, by city policy, are directed to use only that account for city business. Unlike Blossom, councilpersons Ward, Bonkowski and Lester have failed to turn their emails over to the city, in violation of city policy, as well as state law. There is no indication that the other three councilpersons, Kirsten Hytopoulos, Bob Scales and Anne Blair, have used their personal accounts for city business.

“The last thing we want to do is sue the city,” said Paulson, a former co-publisher of the Bainbridge Buzz news website, who now blogs about city politics. “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. The city has produced documents from the city’s server, but in the two months since my request, the three council members still haven’t produced their emails.” (more…)

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Responding to recent council attention on whether the state’s open government laws apply to private email activity by council as well as to the actions of members of city committees and commissions, Interim city attorney Jim Haney made a presentation last night to the full council on the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA).

Haney has said he will talk about the Public Records Act (PRA) at a meeting at the end of August. The OPMA and the PRA are separate, but related, state statutes. The OPMA requires that government business be conducted in public, and sets forth standards and requirements for public meetings, as well as fines for officials who do not comply.

The PRA provides that most records created or used in the conduct of government are public records and must be produced to any member of the public who asks.

In recent weeks, several members of the public–including me–have made requests under the PRA for public documents, which perhaps has drawn attention to some questionable open government practices by city officials and committee members.

Utility Advisory Committee chair Arlene Buetow, for example, has taken the position the the UAC is not subject to the OPMA. In an email to council member Sarah Blossom dated May 22, 2013, Buetow wrote, “The UAC was previously told we were not subject to the open public meeting act based on the following logic”, and attached a 1991 opinion from the Washington Attorney General’s office. According to Attorney General Open Government Ombudsman Tim Ford, the courts have expanded the reach of the OPMA in the twenty years since that opinion was issued. (more…)

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