A moment in time with the Belfair Water DistrictNovember 25th, 2011 by Steven Gardner
For months we have been covering the unlikely events that have been happening with the Belfair Water District. I say, “unlikely,” because what I had experienced mostly over the phone was unlike any other government I have ever covered. I remember a city councilman chastising residents over their characterization of him. I remember a city worker publicly accusing a city councilman of trying to get him fired. I saw the hysterics at the health care town halls. I had a conversation with a city councilman once when he told me how much he hated (his words) another member of the council. Yet never had I experienced the kind of dysfunction I was hearing about over the phone and in court documents like the stuff I was hearing from the tiny little water district on the Hood Canal.
The best stuff, I was hearing from participants and reading in Arla Shepherd’s reporting in the Belfair Herald, was at the board meetings. The current board will be changed in January. I wanted to see the district’s board in action before two of the commissioners left. I got my chance on Tuesday. From the beginning of the meeting what I saw was more than I had ever seen
I was probably about 5 minutes late to the meeting. I admit it was because I had never been there and quite frankly I thought it was somewhere else along Highway 3. Fortunately for me Mike Pope, the commissioner who for now is on the outs with the other two commissioners and with the utility’s manager, was arriving just as I was. I would have missed some early fireworks had he been there on time.
John Phillips, who ran the meeting Tuesday, tried to move beyond commissioner reports, but Pope wanted to make a statement. Pope wanted a manager’s report stricken. The report accused Pope of not complying with a public records request for a tape recording he made of a training meeting. Pope said the tape did not exist. Dave Tipton, district manager, said that Pope had probably destroyed the tape. In fact, the date requested had the wrong year on it. Pope said, “That’s not my problem. You wrote down the wrong date. Phillips responded, “You knew what we meant.”
The commissioners then addressed an agreement Tipton negotiated with the Mary E. Theler Community Center & Wetlands in Belfair. Phillips was unhappy with the terms. I’m not sure if it was over the amount or that the center wouldn’t be paying it all right away. “If they’re solvent, pay their bill.” Pope said something I didn’t catch, something Tipton said was not true. Phillips continued to protest the agreement. “We had every right to turn off the water. Isn’t it kind of stupid hiring a lawyer a for a stupid little water bill,” Phillips said. Tipton said it was the best solution for both parties, because it settles it. It was approved 3-0, which I think may have been the only unanimous vote of the meeting.
The commissioners then discussed moving their financial account away from Kitsap Bank. Tipton had received quotes from several banks, in the end suggesting a move to Columbia Bank. Pope asked why not stay local and asked where Columbia Bank was based. Tipton responded, “They’re not local so you tell me. You know more than I do.” The bank’s fees were cheaper than Kitsap Bank. Pope asked why the district was looking to leave Kitsap Bank at all. Phillips said it had something to do with Kitsap Bank’s service. Pope pressed, and Tipton said, “I don’t really choose to badmouth a local business in a public meeting.”
There was a proposal to sell some truck bins the district wasn’t using to someone who asked about them and negotiated a price. Pope said the district might get paid more by mentioning their availability in the district’s monthly newsletter. “You can use ‘The Aqueduct.’ It’s been used for other stuff.”
A resident who received an inordinately high water bill (by more than $1,000) one month appealed her bill. The board denied her. Harry Hatlem, a commissioner, told her “The water went through the meter.” The meter was tested after she questioned the bill and the district found it was working properly. She found no leaks.
Phillips said the board asked for volunteers to work on the district’s budget, but no one called. Pope said that was because the number advertised went to a fax line.
There was a lengthy discussion about a property that had not been billed for a year because of a fire. The property was to begin getting billed again. There was a short argument.
Phillips asked Pope if he wanted to work on something. (I’m sorry. I don’t have the details of what it was.) Pope declined. Phillips said Pope hadn’t done anything in three years on the board. “You don’t want to do it?” Phillips said. “Not as long as you’re on the board, John,” Pope responded.
Tipton then reported on a proposed temporary fix to a water pressure problem in one part of the district’s infrastructure. It’s a short term fix for a problem that has to get a long-term solution eventually, but if it works it would buy the district some time. (I may have this item out of chronological order. I wasn’t taking copious notes on this issue when it came up, until it became part of the larger dispute.)
Public comment begins. It is worth noting that the rules for public comment are on a sheet of paper attached to two walls. People are required to sign in, name a topic, and they are limited to two minutes. Public comment ends after 15 minutes.
Greg Overstreet, attorney for three different parties who sued the district on public records issues and won a combined $82,000 on it, addressed the board. He made the case, and provided written documentation breaking it out, that the clients made no money on the suit. They were reimbursed small sums for their expenses, but almost all the $82,000 went to Overstreet’s firm. Now, I don’t remember seeing outright claims of enrichment of the plaintiffs in this case, though I have seen implications. This is a touchy point for them and for their attorney. Overstreet said to the board that he provided the documents to show how the money was disbursed. “If you were to tell people that my clients made money, you would be sued for defamation,” Overstreet said. Phillips said there is a perception the clients made money. They discussed a little how that perception happened. At one point Tipton said “His two minutes are up.” When Overstreet was finished Pope took issue with Tipton, who Pope said had muttered, “Rot in Hell” toward Overstreet. Tipton said “I didn’t it say to him.” Overstreet asked Tipton if he would say it loud and to his face. Tipton declined. Overstreet called Tipton a “coward.” Phillips said that was slander. “You are a lawyer. You should know better.” Overstreet said Tipton is a “public figure,” citing Supreme Court decisions.
Next up was Greg Waggett, one of the plaintiffs. Phillips asked, “OK, Ken, what are you going to say? Are you going to preach to the choir?” Waggett and Ken VanBuskirk, another litigant, asked for an apology for what was written about them in “The Aqueduct.” (I wouldn’t guess they’ll get one. In fact, the December issue could be a dandy.) Waggett made an issue of the district’s failures with public records. After some give and take it was clear to the audience of about a dozen that “They (Tipton, Phillips and Hatlem) haven’t learned a thing,” from the records dispute. Pope said, “They won’t because it’s not their money.”
Bonnie Pope, Mike Pope’s wife and one of the litigants, again asked for an apology. When Phillips didn’t respond, she asked if he was going to. “I don’t have to respond to none of your questions,” he answered. (By the way, it is not unusual for a member of a council or board to not directly answer a citizen’s question. As a courtesy, though, they often say they’ll look into the issue. And it’s not unheard of on something like this for a board member to answer to some degree. Technically in parliamentary settings, though, Phillips is correct.)
They went to executive session, during which time I chatted with some from the audience. Bonnie Pope, who said she lived her whole life in the area, said she has had longtime friends asking her if she made money on the lawsuit, friends who admitted they thought she had. That is a sore sport for her and the other litigants, because they have all said they do not relish costing their friends and neighbors money, but the district did not comply.
Mike Pope stormed out of the executive session saying, “They’re attacking me in there and they refuse to make it public.” The board returned to the dais and Pope asked that his personnel issue be held in public. The other board members said the issue wasn’t about him. Phillips declared the meeting over.
“Thank God,” Mike Pope said, to which Phillips responded, “Mike you’ve got to learn some civility.”
“I was physically restrained from leaving that door,” Pope said of the executive session.
“Mr. Pope’s a liar” Tipton said.
There was another testy exchange between Phillips and Overstreet in which Phillips asked if Overstreet was going to bill his clients for attending Tuesday’s meeting. This was when someone suggested turning off the tape recorder used for the meeting.
I spoke with Phillips and Tipton and Hatlem for a bit after the meeting. Phillips said we hadn’t been kind to the district. He was suggesting, I think, that we were hard on the district because Overstreet represented us before. He made reference to David Nelson, our editor, having his face on Overstreet’s website as a client. (It may have been there before. It isn’t now. Nor is the Kitsap Sun listed as one of the Allied Law Firm’s clients.) He also thought we were writing stories because Nelson demanded it. I informed him otherwise.
Tipton showed me a map and outlined what the pressure issue was. He clearly relished explaining that issue and said as much, professing a disdain for the political stuff. He also said the issue inside the executive session was not about Mike Pope. He and Phillips also said the move away from Kitsap Bank was because the bank was slow to release the district’s money after the district had paid off its penalty to the public records litigants.
Phillips gave me a water district pen (pictured above). I turned it down at first, then accepted it. I left the district offices into the rain and headed back. It’s probably best I leave it at that.