Puyallup residents know the adrenaline rush of spinning in circles, feeling sick in the stomach and returning again and again to the spot where the ride began. They overspend for the experience every year at the Washington State Fair.
But it’s not how they expect City Hall to operate.
After a pair of court actions reported in the past week by News Tribune staff writer Sean Robinson, we wouldn’t blame Puyallup taxpayers for feeling punchy and frustrated — or even a bit nauseated, because the city’s been in this place too many times before.
In one case, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Puyallup’s appeal in its doomed long-running defense of Steve Vermillion, a former city councilman who refused to give up email exchanges from his personal account.
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In the second ruling, a Pierce County Superior Court judge opened the door for the city to have to pay a contractor $2 million or more to make amends for a bungled road project. The work took more than twice as long as planned, ran well over budget and was ultimately finished by another contractor.
Together, the rulings point to a pattern of losing legal battles being waged at public expense. They cast doubt on the judgment of top staff about when to fight and when to negotiate. And they call into question the City Council’s oversight of an attorney-driven culture that’s grown overly litigious.
The Vermillion case originated in 2012, when the newly elected city councilman, against the advice of the city, used a personal account to email constituents, fellow council members and city officials.
An open-records activist sought access to the emails, Vermillion refused and the city defended the councilman over privacy concerns — not once, not twice, but at least three times. The city spent $100,000 on outside lawyers, plus incalculable time and grief.
This case was a dog from the start, one that merely nipped at the ankles of Washington’s Public Records Act. Pierce County Superior Court Judge Stanley Rumbaugh didn’t mince words in 2014 when he noted “clear abuses” of the law by city officials; he highlighted access to government records as a “fundamental condition of a free society."
Puyallup stumbled onward, despite the obvious legal precedent established under its nose in 2015. That’s when the state Supreme Court ruled unanimously that text messages on the private phone of Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist are public records if they relate to public business.
Now Puyallup officials will have to do what Lindquist did — submit the requested electronic records to a judge to sort public from private. Why the heck didn’t this happen long ago?
Meanwhile, the city also has to deal with fallout from the misbegotten road project on 39th Avenue Southwest. Evidence suggests officials acted recklessly by firing a road contractor instead of negotiating a settlement or allowing a subcontractor to fix its mistakes, which it said it would do at no additional cost.
A city can terminate a contract only for good cause, not for mere convenience, according to a Pierce County judge. (Once again, Rumbaugh.)
That lesson will likely cost Puyallup at least a few million dollars for the extra roadwork costs plus fees for the city’s outside counsel and the contractor’s attorneys.
For Puyallup residents, the email disclosure case might seem esoteric, but the road construction fiasco is as plain as two years of orange cones, traffic aggravations and business headaches.
With City Hall giving sparse explanations, the public should press for answers. (Mayor John Hopkins said in an interview Tuesday that the lack of transparency bothers him but comes at the behest of city staff.)
There’s plenty of accountability to go around, from City Manager (and former city attorney) Kevin Yamamoto to the council that’s supposed to give him direction.
Puyallup simply has to be smarter about when to cut its losses and stop going in circles.