Selah city officials are asking a Yakima County Superior Court judge to reconsider her ruling ordering them to turn over an email.
Specifically, the city is asking Judge Gayle Harthcock to soften the language of her Jan. 19 ruling that the email in question contained evidence that City Council members violated the Open and Public Meetings Act in July.
City Attorney D.R. “Rob” Case said judges are prohibited from commenting on evidence in cases before the court, and she should amend her statement to say it could be interpreted that way if the author is assumed to be credible.
“(C)ounsel for the defense does not believe that (Harthcock) intended to make impermissible comments on the evidence within the letter ruling in this case,” Case wrote in his motion for Hathcock to reconsider. “Rather defense counsel believes that the challenged excerpts were the product of an honest mistake — that they were unintentional overstatements/misstatements, not actually intended to say/mean what they fully do say/mean.”
But the attorney for Trent Wilkinson, who is suing the city for failing to release the email as well as violating the Open and Public Meetings Act, said Harthcock should let her ruling stand.
“Frankly, the city appears extremely desperate to keep this email concealed and will make any argument — no matter how meritless — to keep this email hidden from the public,” attorney Timothy Hall said in court records. “This activity the City of Selah is engaging in is why we have the Public Records Act.”
Harthcock will hear arguments on the matter at 1:30 p.m. Friday.
Wilkinson initially sued the city after City Administrator Don Wayman said at a July 28 council meeting that council members authorized city workers to remove chalk art from city streets in a 5-2 vote. Wilkinson alleged that the vote took place in a July 14 executive meeting — a setting where the council is legally prohibited from voting.
Chalk art appeared on city streets in June in support of the Black Lives Matter movement following the death of Minneapolis resident George Floyd. Some messages called on the city to fire Wayman, who has disparaged the anti-police-brutality movement and its local supporters.
In September, as part of his lawsuit, Wilkinson requested copies of emails from any council members discussing possible open-meetings violations. Wilkinson sued the city for violating the public records act in December because it failed to respond to the request within five days.
Case argued in court that the single email was exempt from disclosure because it discussed a meeting protected by attorney-client privilege, was an inter-agency communication and a city ordinance prohibits council members from disclosing what was said in a closed meeting.
In her ruling, Hathcock said the email was not written as part of a decision-making process, and while the meeting was convened to discuss threats of lawsuits, the email was written after the meeting and not directed to Case.
“After reviewing the document it is obvious that an action occurred that is not authorized to take place in an executive session, therefore the action itself is not protected,” Harthcock wrote in her order, which also directed the city to turn over the email by Jan. 29.
Case, in his motion asking Harthcock to reconsider, said case law has barred judges from commenting on evidence in cases before the court. He also suggested that the email may not be a credible or accurate description of what happened in the meeting.
“It is entirely possible that the author of the email has zero credibility, is misrepresenting things and is motivated by politics rather than truth,” Case wrote. “It is entirely possible that all other council members squarely contradict the story the author is selling.”
Hall, however, said Harthcock was within her rights to comment on the email, as it was the basis for her ruling ordering its release. He also argued that Case’s motion was an attempt to “neuter” Harthcock’s ruling so it would not affect the open meetings lawsuit.
“How can the city claim that the document could not be released due to its alleged executive session status and then turn around and argue the court could not make a finding that executive session did not apply based on the content of the email?” Hall argued.
In addition to Wilkinson’s lawsuits, the city, Mayor Sherry Raymond and Wayman are being sued in U.S. District Court by the Selah Alliance For Equality for removing the group’s signs promoting racial equality and calling for Wayman’s firing.