A two-thirds majority of Clallam County commissioners has approved a $518,000 budget emergency to settle a 2014 lawsuit.
The pending settlement also would provide an acre of waterfront land for the expansion of the county parks system in Clallam Bay.
Commissioners Bill Peach and Mark Ozias voted July 5 to approve the debatable budget emergency, saying the settlement, while unfortunate, is the county’s best option to resolve a 2014 Public Records Act lawsuit and protect taxpayers from further liability.
“Because our liability, or our potential liability, is so great, I believe that this is the right thing to do,” Ozias said at the end of a two-hour public hearing.
Peach, whose district includes Clallam Bay, said the settlement with Scott and Elizabeth Lange was his idea.
“This is a tough situation with a timeline we have to deal with and adverse consequences if we didn’t perform within this specific timeline,” said Peach, who was in Olympia for a state Board of Natural Resources meeting and participated by phone.
“I think that we should proceed with the proposed action.”
Commissioner Mike Chapman voted no, saying there was adequate time to draft legal documents to explain the settlement in greater detail while meeting a negotiated deadline that expires Wednesday, July 13.
“At least wait until the public knows exactly what we’re signing on for,” Chapman urged his fellow board members.
“We still have time. There’s no rush. I don’t understand the rush today,” Chapman said.
The 2014 lawsuit, Lange, et al. v Clallam County, focuses on the county’s processing of public records sought by the Langes between 2009-2013, Prosecuting Attorney Mark Nichols has said.
A failure to produce those documents in 2013 — they were discovered after a subsequent public records request was filed in 2016 — has resulted in a proposed settlement, Nichols said.
Under the terms of agreement, Clallam County will purchase David and Krisanne Cebelak’s waterfront parcel at 120 Salt Air St. in Clallam Bay.Peach and Ozias voted last week to purchase the land for $300,000 plus closing costs.
Chapman voted no on the land purchase, citing public process concerns.
Once the sale of the Cebelak property is final, the county will purchase two neighboring lots from the Langes for $210,000 cash.
Clallam County will remove two structures and a bulkhead from the Cebelak property and the Langes will release the county from multiple legal claims and dismiss a pending lawsuit against the Cebelaks.
The terms of the settlement, which were negotiated in mediation May 16, are hand-written on a six-page document available on the county’s website, www.clallam.net, under “Board of Commissioners.”
The amount of the budget emergency was lowered from $550,000 to $518,000 after the closing costs of the Cebelak sale were determined.
County Administrator Jim Jones said the closing costs were nearly $8,000.
The money for the budget emergency comes from the general fund in a restricted reserve for unpaid claims.
Staff approval, public scrutiny
The hearing began with a 25-minute staff report provided by Jones; Human Resources Director Rich Sill; Community Development Director Mary Ellen Winborn; Parks, Fair and Facilities Director Joel Winborn; County Engineer Ross Tyler; and Nichols.
Senior staff recommended approval of the budget emergency.
“I can tell you that from the risk-management perspective for this matter that I fully agree with the direction that the county is going on this,” Sill said. “I’m very comfortable with this process and what we’re accomplishing.”
Joel Winborn displayed a map depicting the three properties being acquired by the county.
The properties are situated in east Clallam Bay between the Clallam Bay West county park and Slip Point Lighthouse.
Public access to marine shorelines is a top priority in the county parks master plan.
More than 87 percent of those who responded to a 2015 parks survey said the county should fund the acquisition of waterfront parks when the money is available, Winborn said.
Eleven speakers testified at the hearing, some multiple times.
Many expressed concerns over the settlement or the actions leading up to it.
“Let me be blunt: Don’t do it,” said Bill Brigden of Sequim. “This is a public hearing and what I’m hearing is a public conclusion.”Jane Hielman, vice president of the Clallam Bay-Sekiu Chamber of Commerce and the only Clallam Bay speaker to testify, had “concerns” and “raves” about the settlement.
“I feel that the public should have been brought into the discussion before now, at some level,” said Hielman, who also serves on the county Planning Commission. I feel that the monies involved in the proposed purchase of the three properties are excessively high and quite a few people in our area have reported the same thing.”
Hielman and others said the properties are susceptible to further storm damage. The area was eroded in a storm in the mid-2000s.Hielman raved that the settlement would improve shoreline access.
Several speakers complained about a lack of transparency in the settlement and a lack of accountability in Clallam County’s public records management.
Two called for Nichols’ resignation.
Nichols said he and other county officials are committed to transparency.
“I think that we’ve gone about as far as we can at this stage in the process in providing as much in the way of explanation as we can,” Nichols said. “It’s not a pretty picture, and no one here is trying to hide anything.”
Nichols released a three-page memorandum providing background on the lawsuit and settlement effort last Thursday.
“Discussions that occur post-settlement, post-dismissal of this suit, really will allow for the issue of accountability to be best addressed,” Nichols said. “Today’s discussion is not the end, but frankly from my perspective, it is really the beginning.”
Before voting to approve the budget emergency, Ozias said he was “upset” by the situation that led to the settlement.
“I believe what we have witnessed here is not just a failure of an individual or individuals,” Ozias said. “I think that what we witnessed here is what I would consider a systemic failure of the county.
“It’s an organizational failure,” Ozias added. “It’s a failure of leadership. It’s a failure at the departmental level. It’s a failure at the personal level. We recognize that and are actively working to turn that around.”
Last Thursday, Ozias chaired a meeting of county elected officials and department heads on the management of public records.The first-year commissioner said the meeting was a “step in the right direction.”
“I would like taxpayers to understand that this leadership team is committed to rapidly implementing the organizational changes that need to be made such that we are minimizing our chance of finding ourself in this situation in the future,” Ozias said. “I can’t underscore that significantly enough.”
Rob Ollikainen is a reporter with the Olympic Peninsula News Group, which is composed of Sound Publishing newspapers Peninsula Daily News, Sequim Gazette and Forks Forum. He can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56450, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.