Lewis County Commissioners Settle Meetings Lawsuit for $20,000, Plus Attorney Fees

By Natalie Johnson / njohnson@chronline.com

The Board of Lewis County Commissioners has agreed to settle a lawsuit alleging commissioners engaged in a pattern of holding meetings without properly notifying the public as required by the state’s Open Public Meetings Act.

“We don’t take this lightly,” Lewis County Commissioner Edna Fund said at a commission briefing on the subject Tuesday. 

According to the county’s offer of judgment, accepted by plaintiffs Brian Cortland and Brian Green and filed with Thurston County Superior Court on Friday, the three Lewis County Commissioners agreed to pay the plaintiffs $20,000 in addition to “reasonable attorney fees.”

The commissioners also agreed to a stipulated judgment including the clause, “For a term of two years, Defendants shall substantially comply with the Meeting Policy of the Lewis County Board of Commissioners, which came into effect on May 1, 2015.”

Lewis County sent the Offer of Judgment, a type of legal settlement, to Cortland and Green’s attorney, Joseph Thomas, of Renton, on July 28. On Thursday, Thomas notified Lewis County that his clients found the settlement acceptable.

“The record speaks for itself,” he said Wednesday. “We’re happy reasonable minds can prevail.” 

David Fine, of the Lewis County Prosecutor’s Office Civil Division, met with the Lewis County commissioners and county financial staff Tuesday afternoon to discuss how the board planned to pay the settlement. 

“It would be nice if we could pay the $20,000 sometime this week,” he said. 

Thomas has asked for $37,000 in fees, Fine said. That number has not yet been agreed to, he added, but he said an agreement could be reached in the next few days.

Fine said Tuesday that the attorney fees could have been three times that number if the case went to trial.  

“It’s a much better deal for the taxpayers of this county to avoid paying that extra money and to settle that case,” he said. 

The commissioners did not make a decision on how to pay the settlement, and have set an Aug. 18 deadline to come to a conclusion. 

Cortland and Green filed their lawsuit against Lewis County and the three individual commissioners on April 21, arguing that the commission had violated the state Open Public Meetings Act on at least a dozen occasions so far in 2017. 

In most of the instances, a quorum, or a voting majority, of the county commissioners allegedly met without advance notice being given to the public of the meeting, as is required by the Act.

The lawsuit was filed following reporting by The Chronicle of one instance of a meeting being called without proper notice, and the revelation that the Board of Commissioners operated using a policy on public meetings approved in 2009, stating that the board was in open session from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day while in the Lewis County Courthouse. 

The commission and the Prosecutor’s Office has previously used that resolution to justify a quorum meeting in the building for a variety of reasons, including meetings with staff and a press conference, without additional notice. 

The lawsuit argued that the county’s public meeting policy has been illegal and that the commissioners knew it. 

On May 1, Fine introduced the commission to a new county meeting policy that would no longer abide by the 2009 resolution, and would in some cases be more restrictive than the OPMA itself. 

The Lewis County Prosecutor’s Office represented the Board of Commissioners in the case. Fine explained Tuesday that the board considered whether to hire private attorneys to fight the case, but the Prosecutor’s Office took charge of the defense because the allegations involved actions the commissioners took in the course of their official duties. 

“The allegation is in attending meetings of the board of county commissioners …  did certain acts that are wrongful,” he said. “You can’t get any closer to the course and scope of office.”

The commissioners have three options for paying the settlement and attorney fees, County Budget Manager Becky Butler said at the Tuesday briefing. They could pay the settlement in their personal capacity, use funds from the county’s Risk Management insurance, or could take the money out of the county commission’s budget in the general fund.

Fine asked for an answer to that question Tuesday, but the commissioners asked to delay their decision for the time being. 

“For me, this was a big deal. Myself, professionally, I want to think about it,” Fund said. 

Fund took a moment during Tuesday’s meeting to lament the amount of money the county spends to fulfill public disclosure requests, particularly noting the fact that Cortland and Green file many requests with the county and have also filed multiple lawsuits regarding alleged public records violations, in addition to the open meetings lawsuit being discussed. 

“It’s an interesting decision,” she said, regarding paying the settlement. “We’ve been spending … I think this year a half a million dollars on public disclosure, trying to do the best we can to be open and having to respond to over 600 requests from an individual … It’s a very overwhelming thing.” 

Fund said the money spent on public disclosure issues cuts into the money commissioners have to pay for “unfunded mandates” such as public defense and jail medical costs.

Commissioner Bobby Jackson also asked to wait on the decision, saying he believes the commissioners could make a mistake if forced to decide too quickly.

Fine said the county is required to pay the settlement in a “reasonable” amount of time, but said two weeks would not be too long to wait. 

“If we have two weeks to make a decision, I would like to take that time to consider this,” Jackson said.