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City attorney apologizes for blocking citizen's comment about investigation

Federal Way's city attorney has apologized for blocking a citizen from commenting on a city-funded investigation during a public meeting.

At the July 16 city council meeting, Federal Way resident Norma Blanchard spoke during the citizen comment period. As soon as Blanchard mentioned the recent investigation of a complaint about the mayor, City Attorney Pat Richardson interrupted her to prevent a potential violation of state law:

Blanchard: "In the recent investigation by the city, first it was for - "

Richardson: "Point of order. I'm sorry, this is an election year. You can't talk about individuals."

Blanchard: "I'm not talking about an individual. I'm talking about a situation, Pat."

Richardson: "Point of order. You can't use a city facility for this."

The investigation stemmed from a complaint filed by City Councilmember Kelly Maloney regarding Mayor Skip Priest's behavior. The investigation was conducted in May and cost taxpayers about $5,700, according to the city.

Richardson had stopped the investigation after "the investigator became concerned the complaint was being used for political objectives." According to this interpretation, moving forward with the investigation would violate state law.

This law prohibits the city from using or authorizing public facilities — in this case, the council chambers at City Hall — for comments that address candidates and ballot measures. Both Maloney and Priest are running for election this year.

Last week, Blanchard followed up with a phone message to the city attorney's office to voice her concerns about the investigation. The city attorney's office then followed up with the Public Disclosure Commission.

On July 19, Richardson issued an apology to Blanchard.

"I learned that it would not violate state law for you to address the topic of the investigation as long as you avoid delving into the specifics that concern candidates," Richardson wrote to Blanchard in an email obtained by The Mirror. "I spoke too quickly as you may have intended to discuss the investigation in a general way without discussing specific candidates or allegations. I apologize."

Richardson's email reviewed the key findings from the investigation, and concluded with Richardson saying, "my purpose was to protect the city from violating state law."

Previously, Richardson had also interrupted Federal Way resident Betty Taylor with a "point of order" during citizen comment at the June 4 city council meeting after Taylor mentioned a report in The Mirror about the investigation. Richardson then reiterated the city's guidelines for citizen comment.

At the beginning of each Federal Way City Council meeting, the mayor asks Richardson to remind the audience that public facilities cannot be used for campaign purposes. The emphasis of the public meeting is to address city policy issues and city business, Richardson said.

Regarding the July 16 council meeting, Blanchard said she was dissatisfied with the investigation's outcome and had questions regarding the specifics.

"I knew I was going to get shut down," Blanchard told The Mirror. "We need a new city attorney."

No right to public comment?

State law gives Washington citizens the right to attend public meetings. Most government agencies like the Federal Way City Council allow citizen comments at public meetings, but are not required by law to do so.

Likewise, governments have the right to impose time limits on public comment, and can also limit "inappropriate" or "disruptive" comments.

"An irony of American free speech law is that it provides more protec­tion for ranting on a street corner than speaking out at a public meeting," according to a UCLA case law study, which cites a U.S. Supreme Court recognition that "such meetings are venues for administrative business and not just citizen engagement."

About the Federal Way investigation

A formal complaint was filed May 9 by Councilmember Kelly Maloney after a conversation she had with Mayor Skip Priest the day before.

The complaint describes a nearly 30-minute meeting in which the mayor was angry, pounding his fist on the desk and "lacing the 'F' word throughout his statements as he was yelling." The complaint alleged the mayor was trying to intimidate Maloney and claimed the mayor also cried.

To investigate the complaint, the city hired attorney Eileen M. Baratuci of Arbitration, Investigation and Mediation (AIM) Services based in Port Townsend.

The 10-page report summarizes the attorney's interviews with Priest, Maloney and people who may have witnessed the initial confrontation or the mayor's "direct mode," a term that Priest uses to describe a harsh style of communication.

The complaint became public when the city released it to the Federal Way Mirror in response to a public records request.

The investigator reported a concern that the complaint "was being used for political objectives."

According to the investigator: "Although I do not make any specific findings about who notified the press of Ms. Maloney's complaint, the fact that Ms. Maloney told Mayor Priest's political opponent (Deputy Mayor Jim Ferrell) about it raises the possibility that the complaint itself, regardless of the investigative findings, could be used to elicit as much damage politically, as possible, over a single conversation."

To read the investigator's report, click here.

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