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
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