King County will pay a $125,000 settlement to a Vashon Island couple who alleged county officials improperly withheld public records including...
King County will pay a $125,000 settlement to a Vashon Island couple who alleged county officials improperly withheld public records including a letter they say was probably written by the wife of a county employee, an environmental regulator.
The county will “certainly learn a lesson from this regarding how seriously to take public records,” said David Vogel, attorney for Bill and Susan Tobin, a Vashon couple who battled the county for six years after the letter alleged they had illegally remodeled their home.
The deal, signed by the Tobins last week, notes the agreement is a “compromise and is not to be construed as an admission of liability” by the county.
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But John Starbard, director of the agency embroiled in the controversy, said the settlement is a “huge lesson” about properly handling public records. However, Starbard suggested penalties for violations of the state records law may be too steep.
Is the letter that sparked the lawsuit, he asked, “really worth $125,000 worth of the public’s money?”
At the center of the strange case is an anonymous letter a county employee, Greg Wessel, said he received about improper building on the Tobins’ property. After hiring handwriting analysts, the Tobins suspected Wessel’s wife wrote the letter.
The dispute dates back to 2005, when the Tobins were trying to close a deal to sell their Vashon house. On April 19, they were visited by Wessel, who worked for the county’s Department of Development and Environmental Services (DDES).
According to the facts laid out in a decision by the county hearing examiner in 2007, Wessel said he had received an anonymous complaint that the Tobins had remodeled their house without proper permits.
Anxious about their impending sale, the Tobins allowed Wessel to inspect their property. Wessel then told the Tobins he’d have to refer the case to enforcement officers as a likely code violation.
A subsequent county order said the Tobins had to obtain permits or demolish non-permitted construction. The Tobins appealed and asked to see the anonymous complaint.
The county gave them a copy with parts blacked out, “without any justification,” Vogel said. The Tobins asked to see the original complaint and were told by the county it was missing.
They became suspicious, Vogel said, because their house was not visible from the road and they didn’t think their neighbors would have complained.
Susan Tobin decided to check Wessel’s handwriting through real-estate records available to the public. She found records that Wessel and his wife had both signed.
“Margaret Wessel’s handwriting was remarkably similar” to the anonymous complaint, Vogel said. The Tobins then hired two experts who agreed but said more evidence was needed.
Meanwhile, the hearing examiner ruled for the Tobins in a decision that entirely dismissed the county compliance order. “Mr. Wessel gained unreasonable entry into the Tobin property and conducted a warrantless search by using an impermissible ruse,” Hearing Examiner Peter Donahue wrote.
The Tobins sued the county, claiming it violated the state’s open-records law. That case was scheduled for trial Aug. 22. But the two parties agreed to a settlement July 28, according to Vogel.
The Tobins accepted the deal, he said, because “they wanted to get on with their lives” and a judge might have ruled against them.
The Tobins still live on the island, as do the Wessels.
Greg Wessel, an environmental scientist for the county, could not be reached for comment.
In an interview, Bill Tobin admitted he had built without proper permits. “I don’t really have an excuse,” said Tobin, an attorney.
Starbard, the DDES director, said he doesn’t know if Wessel’s wife wrote the anonymous letter. But its author “did the right thing,” he said — even if it was Wessel’s wife.
“Whoever wrote the letter is a citizen, a resident of Vashon and certainly has the right to express what was allegedly a violation of law,” Starbard said. “Does the spouse of a county employee give up certain rights? I don’t think so.”
Is it a conflict of interest for a county employee to handle a complaint by the employee’s spouse? “If that happened, that’s not ideal,” Starbard said.
Wessel continues working on the island, Starbard said, because “it’s been reported to me he does excellent work and is well suited to it.”
One last note: The county contacted the Tobins in June to say it had found the original complaint letter. It was in the files of a retired supervisor. Jina Kim, a county attorney who worked on the case, could not explain why it hadn’t been found before.
Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or firstname.lastname@example.org