Politics & Government

Puyallup councilman must turn over emails

Citing "clear abuses" of the state Public Records Act, a Pierce County Superior Court judge ruled Friday that Puyallup City Council member Steve Vermillion must forfeit documents maintained through a private website.

Judge Stanley J. Rumbaugh also took the city of Puyallup to task, saying he was "curious about the city's support to withhold documents" that had been requested by an open-records activist.

Rumbaugh said the public's full access to records, on any platform, must be protected as a "fundamental condition of a free society."

Both the city and Vermillion were disappointed by the ruling and plan to appeal, said Puyallup City Attorney Kevin Yamamoto.

"He had his mind made up ahead of time," Vermillion said of the judge.

The case centers on a website, stevevermillion.com, which the councilman originally set up as an election site in 2009.

Arthur West, an Olympia-based public records activist, asked the city in August 2012 to provide all city-related correspondence sent through Vermillion's private email address, which is tied to his website.

The city approached Vermillion about the request and said it was up to him whether to comply, Yamamoto said, but it couldn't compel Vermillion to release those records.

West filed a legal complaint earlier this year that alleged Vermillion "improperly maintained a personal website for city-related communications" and "breached his lawful duties to comply with the (Public Records Act)" by not disclosing the records to the city.

The lawsuit also states the city "denied responsibility" for the records maintained by Vermillion and was negligent for failing to require him to comply with West's disclosure request. 

The city acknowledges the importance of what was argued before the court, calling the privacy-versus-transparency issue "a seminal, and still unresolved, issue in public records law," according to court records.

But Yamamoto said during Friday's hearing that the Public Records Act doesn't trump an individual's constitutional right to privacy.

He acknowledged that the principles of open records laws could be applied in this case. But, he argued, the laws were designed to apply to the exchange of government records within cities, not within private correspondence.

"The Public Records Act doesn't dictate what private individuals have to do," Yamamoto said during the hearing, adding that nothing in the law gives cities the right to "reach into private individuals' affairs."

The judge dismissed the city's argument: "That's the Legislature's problem, not my problem," he said of the law's language.

Rumbaugh noted that Vermillion could retrieve the requested records on his own - without the city rummaging through his private emails, which was the key concern for both defending attorneys - and therefore no violation of privacy existed.

The judge recommended that city officials avoid private means of communication to conduct any type of city business.

A handful of Puyallup representatives and citizens were present during Friday's hearing, including Mayor John Knutsen.

Vermillion's wife, apparently upset with the outcome, abruptly left the courtroom before the judge finished speaking.

There were tense words exchanged between West and supporters of Vermillion in the hallway outside the courtroom following the hearing.

West told The News Tribune that Friday's ruling "emphatically rejecting" the city's claims was a "victory for open government in the state of Washington."

He said the "level of intensity" in the fight to withhold records from the public is suspicious.

"I've never seen a single public officer do what Mr. Vermillion is doing here," he said.

Vermillion's attorney Ramsey Ramerman, who is being paid by the city, said at the hearing that his client has nothing to hide.

Vermillion has been on the council since 2011. Following the hearing, he told a reporter "there are no records that deal with governance" to forfeit. He said there are four "problem-solving" emails between him and constituents, and all were forwarded to the city and should be publicly available through the city's email system.

Kari Plog: 253-597-8682