After spending nine months playing defense against an Open Public Meetings Act lawsuit, the Black Diamond City Council majority is looking to go on the attack against Mayor Carol Benson.
During the Aug. 17 council meeting, council members Pat Pepper, Brian Weber and Erika Morgan approved a contract with Seattle attorney Anne Bremner.
According to her contract, Bremner is responsible for analyzing Benson’s actions over the last two years and determine whether or not they were lawful.
“The time has come for our Mayor Benson to comply with the law,” Morgan said during the meeting. “The mayor’s conduct is shockingly unlawful… It’s high time to take action.”
Pepper, Weber and Morgan’s complaints about Benson’s behavior as the executive of the city stem back to December 2015, when Pepper and Weber took their seats on the council.
The main source of tension comes from Benson’s refusal to follow the council’s 2016 rules and procedures, adopted in late January 2016 by council majority Pepper, Weber and Morgan. The rules were opposed by council women Janie Edelman and Tamie Deady, along with Benson.
By not following the most recently adopted rules and procedures, the council majority has stated for the last two years, Benson has exceeded her executive powers by refusing to notice standing committee meetings on the city’s website and refusing to allow standing committees to use the council chambers to host meetings.
In turn, Benson has argued the 2016 rules are invalid because they were created outside the public sphere. The developer Oakpointe, which has two housing projects in the city, filed a lawsuit in December 2016 alleging Pepper, Weber and Morgan violated the Open Public Meetings Act in making those rules — a charge the three have denied.
Additionally, the majority has alleged Benson has exceeded her contracting authority by both hiring an attorney without council approval and by refusing to pay attorneys hired by the council.
“She’s misappropriated over $200,000 of taxpayer money to pay for a personal lawyer in attorney David Linehan,” Morgan said. “The city has not approved any payments to him beyond the mayor’s $15,000 independent spending ability.”
As mayor, city statute allows Benson to approve any contract without council approval, so long as the contract is for less than $15,000. Benson has been using this ability to approve multiple $15,000 contracts for Linehan, an attorney for Kenyon Disend, to get around the council.
Benson has said multiple times state law requires the city to have legal representation, and claimed the other attorneys who responded to the city’s earlier requests for proposals were not experienced enough to handle the city’s political issues.
In recent days, the city’s RFPs have been met with no responses, save from Linehan.
Bremner’s contract was signed by Pepper after the meeting.
Bremner said her role is to represent the council and try to get more compliance with the law, in regards to the mayor.
“We are looking at the big picture” and will be closely examining Benson’s actions to determine whether Benson acted in or out of compliance with city or state statutes, she said.
Bremner plans to present her findings of fact to the council along with recommendations on how to proceed, which could include filing a suit. If the council decides to file a suit against Benson, Bremner said she would represent the council in that case.
There’s no timeline set for when Bremner expects to present her findings, but “the more quickly we resolve a case, the better,” she said. “We’re acting with speed and dispatch.”
One issue sure to arise in the near future is the topic of pay. Benson has made it clear she will not authorize payments to Bremner, and Pepper dodged the question when Benson asked her during the Aug. 17 meeting how Pepper expects Bremner to be paid.
Pepper did not respond to an email asking who is expected to pay for Bremner’s services by deadline.
Meetings in Black Diamond have become a spectator sport, and in many cases over the last two years, residents and audience members on both sides of the city’s political spectrum have interrupted the mayor and council during city business.
But the city hit a new milestone on Aug. 17 when four residents — Robbin Taylor, Erin Rose Stout, Leslie Cooley, and Gary Farmer — stood around the podium while Jane Koler, another attorney hired by the City Council, attempted to address the council.
Taylor is the leader for the Recall Pat Pepper group that is responsible for filing a recall effort with the King County Superior Court last April. The recall is now in the state Supreme Court for review after being approved by the Superior Court.
Stout is running for Black Diamond Council Position No. 4 against Ed Hanrahan. Position No. 4 is currently held by Weber, who is not running for re-election.
Cooley is a resident of Black Diamond and head of the city’s Labor Day Committee.
Farmer is the husband of Benson.
Koler, from the Gig Harbor-based Land Use and Property Law, was hired to represent the council on May 18, along with Dan Glenn of Glenn &Associates. While their contracts were approved 3-2 by the City Council, Benson did not sign them. A Land Use and Property Law spokeswoman said their contact was signed by Pepper as the council president and Morgan as the mayor pro tempore.
The Aug. 17 council meeting incident began when Pepper asked Benson for the floor at the beginning of the meeting. Pepper then asked Koler to give the council information about the council being able to set it’s own agenda, and not the mayor. Fighting over whether the council-approved agenda or the mayor-approved agenda is to be followed is a common occurrence at council meetings.
However, Benson told Koler to sit down and not speak.
The council majority — Pepper, Weber and Morgan — appealed Benson’s decision, a parliamentary technique outlined in Robert’s Rules of Order meant to make a presiding officer follow a decision made by the council majority.
Benson ignored the council’s appeals, saying they had no authority to call someone up to speak.
After arguing back and forth, a frustrated Benson said, “OK, everybody get up and speak. There’s other attorneys here. Let’s all get up and speak.” This prompted many members of the audience to begin talking all at once.
It was around this time Taylor, Stout, Farmer and Cooley began to surround the podium.
“You have certain duties. And one of them is keeping order,” Pepper said to Benson, asking why she was allowing the three residents to surround Koler. “They do not have the right to surround a citizen. That is threatening behavior.”
Benson replied that the citizens were acting just the same as Koler by getting up and interrupting the meeting process.
In a email interview after the event, Stout said she stood to, “protest against a person speaking out of turn.”
On the city audio of the meeting, Koler can be heard attempting to speak to the mayor.
“I wish these people would not be surrounding me….” she started, before the mayor cut her off to tell Koler to sit down.
Tensions continued to escalate until Benson called a recess. After the recess, when order was called, Koler spoke to the council and the meeting moved on to public comments.