A months-old argument about whether to award a ceremonial key to a local music luminary has landed Puyallup City Council members in court.
An open-meetings advocate is suing the council over a chain of emails from February that he says violated state law.
City officials say nothing improper occurred, while the councilman who initiated the effort to award the key says it never should have degenerated into a “petty” debate, which he’s dubbed “keygate.”
Councilman John Hopkins says he wanted to present a commemorative coin and key to Chrisophe Chagnard, the now-retired music director for the Tacoma-based Northwest Sinfonietta. The group has performed concerts at the Pioneer Park Pavilion since 2009.
That sparked an argument among council members, in a four-day email exchange, about the merit of the honor and the way in which it was sought.
Arthur West of Olympia filed the lawsuit April 24. It names the city and all seven council members as defendants. It claims that “a quorum of the Puyallup City Council knowingly conducted serial communications, deliberated and took action in violation of the Open Public Meetings Act” when it reached a consensus to issue a key to the city.
Each council member found to have violated open meetings law, the complaint states, should be fined “the princely sum of $100.”
West and the city are already embroiled in a legal battle over emails sent and received via Councilman Steve Vermillion’s private email account, a lawsuit West cites in his most recent complaint.
The emails cited in the new complaint, obtained by The News Tribune, include remarks from all council members except John Palmer.
Many of the emails were sent to one or two recipients at a time. But a handful of the messages — those written by Hopkins, Vermillion and Mayor John Knutsen, as well as City Manager Kevin Yamamoto — were sent to the entire council.
Yamamoto facilitated feedback from council members regarding whether to award the key and coin, and who would present them to Chagnard.
“There is a rough consensus to allow issuance of the key this time,” he wrote in one email.
State law prohibits deliberations and votes from happening out of the public eye. Votes must happen in an open public meeting, including consensus decisions reached without a formal vote.
Past court rulings underscore that point. In Wood v. Battle Ground, for example, the state Court of Appeals said an illegal meeting can occur when members of a governing body exchange emails as a means to reach consensus.
Knutsen told The News Tribune that the emails about the key were a “ceremonial” poll. They didn’t rise to the level of governance as alleged in the lawsuit, he said.
“This is no different than what we do when we decide who is going to buy a retirement gift,” Knutsen said on May 29. “We weren’t going to call a special meeting to resolve the issue.”
City Attorney Steve Kirkelie said in an email last week that issuing a city key to Chagnard came up just days before the scheduled presentation of a previously planned proclamation in his honor. Kirkelie said the email exchange was merely “logistical,” identifying who would present the honor.
“It is unfortunate that Mr. West has chosen to file a lawsuit over such a routine scheduling matter,” Kirkelie said.
Vermillion and Knutsen wrote several emails expressing frustration about the way Hopkins sought to present the key, records show. They accused the deputy mayor of “intimidating” the city clerk and “sneaking coins and a key to the city” in an attempt to “circumvent protocol for his own personal gain,” according to the emails.
In an email sent to the full council explaining his actions, Hopkins said he was working with the city clerk and the city manager to follow proper procedure.
He also acknowledged the potential violation of open meetings law, stressing that fellow council members should not respond to avoid further violation.
“I have been reluctant to enter a Council debate on this matter,” he wrote, adding that the council may have acted unlawfully “by debating and making a decision out of session.”
Hopkins told The News Tribune last week that the violation didn’t dawn on him until many of the emails were already exchanged.
The lawsuit is tentatively scheduled for a hearing in Pierce County Superior Court in August.
Hopkins said it’s a symptom of a larger problem in Puyallup: council members’ inability to play nice with one another.
“It’s incredibly petty,” he said of the council’s bickering over the issue.
Even so, Knutsen maintains Hopkins shouldn’t have acted alone in the endeavor.
“It’s inappropriate for any individual council member to give out a key to the city,” he said. “And to do it without checking with other council members is even more inappropriate.”
Despite the behind-the-scenes fighting, Chagnard received the honor in front of more than 100 people at a Sinfonietta after-party.
“In the end he got the key,” Hopkins said.