Former Puyallup City Councilman Steve Vermillion LEE GILES III Staff photographer
Former Puyallup City Councilman Steve Vermillion LEE GILES III Staff photographer

Local

U.S. Supreme Court to Puyallup: No.

October 05, 2017 8:00 AM

For four years, an array of judges told the city of Puyallup that public records are still public, even if they’re created on private email accounts.

For four years, the city and former City Councilman Steve Vermillion disagreed, and spent $100,000 of taxpayer money on outside lawyers who lost the argument three times in a row, from Pierce County Superior Court to the Washington State Supreme Court.

Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court drove home the final coffin nail, denying a petition from the city and Vermillion to reconsider the lower-court rulings.

In other words, Vermillion’s emails, originally created on a campaign website, will be reviewed and disclosed if they pertain to public business, and the city will face potential financial penalties for the delay.

The decision sends the case back to Pierce County Superior Court, the same forum where Judge Stan Rumbaugh ruled against Puyallup and Vermillion in June 2014, citing “clear abuses” of the state Public Records Act.

The decision sends the case back to Pierce County Superior Court, the same forum where Judge Stan Rumbaugh ruled against Puyallup and Vermillion in June 2014, citing “clear abuses” of the state Public Records Act.

It’s another victory for Arthur West, an Olympia-based public records activist who requested the records in 2012, got the brushoff and took the city to court in 2013.

Vermillion used his private account to field and answer questions from constituents, fellow council members and city officials. City leaders had advised him to use a city email account, but he refused.

When West sought the records, Vermillion declined to provide them, which prompted the lawsuit. The city joined with Vermillion in opposing disclosure and paid for his legal representation, arguing that the state’s public records law violated Vermillion’s privacy rights. The arguments failed. The city agreed to petition the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year.

At that time, West mocked City Council members in a public meeting.

“As your opponent, I urge you to continue to make mistakes,” he said then.

This week, West allowed himself another round of gloating.

If this case was a Germanic opera, the lady with the funny helmet and the metal brassiere would be singing right about now.

Arthur West, public records activist

“If this case was a Germanic opera, the lady with the funny helmet and the metal brassiere would be singing right about now,” he said. “It was a very dangerous assault on the people’s right to know.”

Ramsey Ramerman, the Everett attorney representing Vermillion at the city’s expense, said the next steps will involve following the instructions of lower courts along lines established by the state Supreme Court in 2015, in a case involving Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist.

“We will go back to the trial court,” Ramerman said. “We’ll submit the emails for in-camera (private) review to the court.”

While Ramerman agreed to work pro bono (for free) on the U.S. Supreme Court petition, he will charge Puyallup for upcoming work in local court.

While Ramerman agreed to work pro bono (for free) on the U.S. Supreme Court petition, he will charge Puyallup for upcoming work in local court.

“No, I won’t be working pro bono,” he said.

The News Tribune sought comment from City Manager Kevin Yamamoto, who referred questions to Ramerman and public information officer Brenda Fritsvold.

Among the questions: Were City Council members informed of the costs, and did they set a ceiling? Also, was it worth it?

“Those costs have changed very little since the City Council was informed that the appeal would be pursued, and are in line with previously shared estimates,” Fritsvold said via email. “The Council has been kept apprised of each step of this process as those have occurred or been anticipated to occur.”

The next step in the case is a status conference set for Nov. 3.

West, who is not an attorney, cannot seek legal fees for his time, but the court can levy penalties against the city for disclosure delays, which have passed the five-year mark. Those fines can reach a maximum of $100 per day for each record.

The exact number of records in question is unknown.

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