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Puyallup on the losing side of two open government lawsuits

Christophe Chagnard, conductor with the Northwest Sinfonietta, leads hundreds of drummers gathered for the fifth annual Woodstick Guiness Record event in 2007 at the Puyallup Fair Events Center. Puyallup has settled a lawsuit around email discussions of giving Chagnard a key to the city.
Christophe Chagnard, conductor with the Northwest Sinfonietta, leads hundreds of drummers gathered for the fifth annual Woodstick Guiness Record event in 2007 at the Puyallup Fair Events Center. Puyallup has settled a lawsuit around email discussions of giving Chagnard a key to the city. For The News Tribune

Puyallup’s lengthy legal battle with an Olympia open government advocate over a former councilman’s emails and an internet-enabled council meeting appears headed for resolution.

While final details still need to be worked out, the city is emerging the loser in both cases.

The Puyallup City Council this week authorized City Attorney Joe Beck to negotiate an end to the “keygate” lawsuit. Beck said Thursday the city has agreed to pay open government advocate Arthur West $15,000.

West initiated the suit over the council’s failure to abide by the state’s Open Meetings Act in 2015 when it made a decision about the award of a ceremonial key to the city. West alleged that the decision had been reached in a “serial email” among council members, a violation of the state public meetings law that requires the council to take such actions in view of the public.

In the settlement, the city admitted no wrongdoing. Beck said Puyallup wanted to avoid the costs of further litigation.

In a potentially more expensive suit for the city, the state Supreme Count on Wednesday denied review of a lower court’s ruling granting public access to a former councilman’s governmental emails on his private webpage. West brought that suit against the city and former councilman Steve Vermillion in 2014.

West represented himself in both suits while the city hired outside council to defend the councilman in the Vermillion case. The amount of money spent by the city to defend against the lawsuits was not immediately available.

The city also faces yet undetermined settlement costs and fines in the Vermillion case. It theoretically could face six-figure fines, though judges can levy penalties of less than the maximum allowed by law.

For West, who has made a career of challenging governments in public meeting and public records cases, the two cases were more important for the principles they affirmed than for the fines and settlements they elicited.

West said the keygate case will solidify the principle that public decisions can’t be made in private via email. The Vermillion suit underscores that government officials can’t evade public disclosure by conducting government business on private email accounts, he said.

The keygate case revolved around an email discussion among council members about whether then-Deputy Mayor John Hopkins could award a key to the city to Christophe Chagnard, the now-retired music director for the Tacoma-based Northwest Sinfonietta. The chamber music group had held concerts in Puyallup’s Pioneer Park since 2009.

In the Vermillion case, the former councilman declined to furnish those government-related emails to West. He argued that those emails, directed to an address he used during his council campaign, were private communication. West argued that the communications were public because they concerned Vermillion’s role as a councilman.

When West sued Vermillion and the city, the city mounted a defense and hired a private attorney to represent the councilman.

“We have a duty to represent our council members,” Beck said.

In 2014, Pierce County Superior Court Judge Stanley Rumbaugh ruled in West’s favor and ordered Vermillion to produce the public-related emails for West’s inspection.

“The public has a right to inspect, examine or copy the records that are public,” Rumbaugh said, “even though they are located on a private computer.”

Puyallup and Vermillion appealed that ruling, eventually resulting in the state Supreme Court’s decision this week to decline review of the decision. The case now returns to Rumbaugh’s court, where he will determine fines and order the emails turned over to West.

The city could decide to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, though that would be expensive and time-consuming.

“There are genuine constitutional issues … here,” Beck said.

John Gillie: 253-597-8663

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