Selah will settle two lawsuits alleging the city violated open-government laws in connection with the city’s chalk-art controversy.
Council members unanimously voted Tuesday to approve the settlement, in which the city pays Trent Wilkinson $45,000 and turns over an unredacted copy of an email he had requested, in return for Wilkinson dropping the lawsuits with prejudice, meaning that the cases cannot be filed again.
Under the settlement, the city does not admit to any wrongdoing or liability, City Attorney Rob Case told council members.
“This is the best outcome the city can achieve in this scenario,” Case told council members. “I did not cause it myself, but we are trying to move forward.”
Under the terms of the settlement, the city has until Friday to turn over the document.
He noted that Wilkinson’s attorney, Tim Hall, had no objections to the settlement. While the settlement allows the city to maintain that the lawsuits were meritless and frivolous, it also states that Wilkinson and his attorney, Tim Hall, do not share that view.
Hall said his client was satisfied with the settlement as it allows for the email to be released and his attorney fees to be paid.
“I really hope the city has learned a lesson from this and the importance of open government and citizens’ rights to know what their elected officials are doing,” Hall said. He said people would be able to decide for themselves if the city violated the law by looking at the evidence that was presented, as well as a judge’s ruling ordering the city to release the email.
Wilkinson filed the lawsuit in Yakima County Superior Court in September, alleging the city violated the state’s Open and Public Meetings Act by taking a vote to authorize the removal of chalk art from sidewalks and streets.
During the summer, supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement drew messages supporting the antiracism, anti-police-brutality movement on streets and sidewalks. Some of the messages were critical of City Administrator Don Wayman, who has disparaged the movement and its local supporters.
At the July 28 council meeting, Wayman reminded council members that they voted 5-2 to direct city staff to remove the chalk art, a vote Wilkinson said in his suit was conducted in a July 14 executive session meeting.
Under state law, councils can meet in closed session to discuss matters such as pending litigation, real estate negotiations and personnel matters, but must take any action on those matters in a public meeting.
As part of his lawsuit, Wilkinson also filed a public records request in September for any email correspondence from council members about votes taken in closed meetings. In December, Wilkinson filed another lawsuit against the city for not responding to the request within the five days required by law.
Case argued in court that the city was not aware of the request because it was not submitted through the city’s online portal but was instead emailed to the city’s public records officer. And the city, Case said, would not release the only email that met Wilkinson’s request because he claimed it involved matters of attorney-client privilege, was an interagency communication that was exempt from disclosure and Selah’s ordinances bar council members from revealing what was discussed in a closed meeting.
But in a Jan. 19 ruling on the public records lawsuit, Judge Gayle Harthcock found that the email was not part of a decision-making process, was not directed to Case, was written after the meeting and appeared to have evidence of an open meetings act violation.
“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.
Case told council members Tuesday that the vote on the settlement had to be unanimous, and that rejecting the settlement would not be in the city’s best interests.
“If this does not go through, it will be worse for the city in terms of time and money,” Case said.
Hall agreed on that point.
“Had the two cases continued on, the city could have easily spent another $75,000-$100,000 defending a claim that they were never going to win,” Hall said. “Had the city turned over the email when it was requested, or even immediately after the suit was filed, the city could have saved tens of thousands of dollars.”