Politics & Government

Puyallup councilman posts online attack against city critic

A Puyallup City Council member, who was recently scolded by a judge for using a private website’s email account for public business, has now used the same website to label a local citizen as a "cyberstalker" and "a lonely sociopath” who leads a “pathetic and miserable existence.”

Councilman Steve Vermillion's actions have drawn the attention of residents who say he's taking a personal feud too far. One of the critics is Puyallup resident Robin Farris, who led a high-profile recall campaign against Pierce County Assessor-Treasurer Dale Washam in 2011 that fell just short of landing on the ballot.

Farris told The News Tribune she’s prepared to launch a recall effort against Vermillion if he doesn’t step down.

Vermillion’s recent Web post targets Dave Churchman, a Puyallup resident who has long clashed with city officials and has engaged in several nasty exchanges with Vermillion.

The Web post, titled “Profile of a Suspected Cyberstalker,” appears on the first-term councilman’s personal website (stevevermillion.com). Vermillion lists definitions of cyberstalking and implies that Churchman “fits the profile.”

Vermillion’s Web post appears against the backdrop of a lawsuit over public records. The city and Vermillion are both fighting the suit. The city argues that reaching into Vermillion’s private emails in search of city-related business is a violation of his right to privacy.

So far, they are losing. In June, Pierce County Superior Court Judge Stanley Rumbaugh ruled against Vermillion and city officials, citing “clear abuses” of the state Public Records Act. Rumbaugh ordered Vermillion to turn over emails sent to the private account affiliated with his private website, which was originally set up as his election website.

Vermillion hasn’t complied with the judge’s order, and he and the city plan to appeal the decision.

Churchman is not the plaintiff in the lawsuit, but he is one of the citizens who raised concerns about the public-records issue. Vermillion’s Web post accuses Churchman of using the Internet and his access to public records to denigrate elected officials and government employees.

“The only release from his pathetic and meaningless existence for this angry and frustrated sociopath is to create a fantasy that he is on a mission to clean up the politics in Puyallup,” Vermillion wrote in the posting.

In an email obtained by The News Tribune, Farris requested last week that Vermillion immediately resign, citing the public records lawsuit and the Churchman posting as examples of inappropriate conduct. She wrote that Vermillion’s “unprofessionalism” makes him a liability for the city.

“I haven't seen this type of behavior since I investigated Dale Washam,” she wrote. “It is unfathomable to see it in my home town.”

Farris added that Vermillion should remove the “offensive” and “derogatory” posting about Churchman and apologize.

Farris spoke at Tuesday’s council meeting, criticizing the city’s intent to defend Vermillion in court and ignore the judge’s order.

Vermillion has earned the reputation as an unapologetic and outspoken member of the City Council. He has long been at odds with Churchman, although the two were once united against Vermillion’s political opponents before he was elected to the council in 2011. Vermillion says he used to consider Churchman a friend.

The latest Web post is the culmination of more than two years of vitriolic back-and-forth between the men, primarily conducted via email.

Churchman said he wouldn’t comment on Vermillion’s posting.

Vermillion told The News Tribune it was “a direct response to two and a half years of Dave Churchman harassment.” He added that it is a precursor to civil lawsuits he plans to file against Churchman for slander and cyberstalking.

“He has no interest in the governance of the city,” Vermillion said. “He is just interested in harassing people.”

The City of Puyallup has no official response to Vermillion’s posting about Churchman, said City Attorney Kevin Yamamoto.

“Councilman Vermillion still has his First Amendment rights,” he said. “What he chooses to say is up to him.”

As for Farris’ threat of a recall, Yamamoto said he would want to see evidence that proves wrongdoing.

“Recalls are pretty rare,” he said. “It’s a pretty high hurdle to un-elect somebody.”

Vermillion said he has no intention of resigning from the City Council. He said any recall effort that Farris launches will be unsuccessful.

“In order to recall somebody, you have to have a justifiable legal reason,” Vermillion said. “It doesn’t exist.”