Contention between a former planning commissioner and the Woodinville City Council has continued to escalate since Nicolas Duchastel’s abrupt dismissal last June. On May 4, he filed a lawsuit against the city for alleged public records request violations.
Michele Earl-Hubbard, an attorney for Duchastel, also submitted a letter as public comment at the council’s meeting on May 4 with an offer to settle out of court if certain demands were met.
Duchastel alleges that he was “bullied” by council members and improperly removed from the planning commission and has sought proof of such conduct through the records. He now believes that the city is violating the law in withholding some of the requested materials.
“The goal is try and get government to work appropriately and fix this,” Duchastel said in an interview.
The city did not respond to a request for comment.
The issue began prior to his dismissal, according to documents filed in King County Superior Court. In early January 2020, Duchastel submitted a request under the Public Records Act for email threads sent in 2019 and the first few days of 2020 by council members and staff that mentioned his name.
The next day, he and another member of the planning commission had a planned meeting with Councilmember Rachel Best-Campbell and then Deputy Mayor Gary Harris. During the meeting, the lawsuit states, Best-Campbell allegedly read from a prepared statement and told Duchastel he did not act with the appropriate decorum. She recorded the reading on her cell phone, according to the lawsuit.
A few days later on Jan. 7, he met with the city clerk and made another request for all records of conversation or discussion related to himself in relation to the planning commission or “to any allegation of lack of decorum, mistreatment or disrespect of City staff or volunteer to the City,” the lawsuit states.
Additionally, he asked for communications related to political endorsements, the selection of the next mayor as it related to former mayor James Evans and Elaine Cook, and endorsements relating to Evans, Cook, Harris, or Councilmember Al Taylor.
The city sent responses to the large requests in installments, which were delivered in March, April and June.
On June 16, the council voted in a 5-2 decision to remove Duchastel from the commission in a late-night move that had not been on the agenda. During the meeting, council members said Duchastel had “not represented the city and the community with dignity and proper decorum.”
Duchastel said he suspects that his removal may have been related to his substantial records requests. In August, he formally asked for documented communications related to the fulfillment of his previous request.
He said he wants to see if his concerns over retaliation can be confirmed.
“It seems like retaliation,” Duchastel said of his removal. “… That’s why we have the Public Records Act, so we can get these things.”
The lawsuit accuses the city of withholding some records, including the written statement that Best-Campbell read from at the January meeting, despite the fact that he submitted a request for it just days after.”
State code defines public records as “any writing containing information relating to the conduct of government or the performance of any governmental or proprietary function prepared, owned, used, or retained by any state or local agency regardless of physical form or characteristics." This includes typed words, photos and “every other means of recording any form of communication or representation.”
Duchastel alleges the city did not provide a “reasonable estimate” on the time it would take to fulfill the requests and didn’t make the most timely possible action. The lawsuit cites a month-long delay from when he made the request to when he received an email that went to former officials and staff asking them to search for responsive records.
Deadlines to fulfill the requests that had been set by the city continued to pass without communication, the lawsuit states. And when he did receive the files, he claims, there was not an adequate exemption log justifying via the applicable code why certain records were not included, which is required by the records act.
In the settlement offer submitted on May 4, the attorney again asked for all records that pertain to Duchastel’s requests, which the letter states, should include Best-Campbell’s written statement and the recording of the meeting from her cell phone.
The offer also requires declarations from current and former employees and officials that document their search for records and reasons for not providing ones that were withheld.
In response to the changing policies over public comments that were brought about by switching to virtual meetings during the pandemic, there is also a demand that the city return to reading all submitted comments or finding a way to let people speak.
At a July meeting, the council received 22 pages of public comments, many of which expressed displeasure at the manner of removal of Duchastel. Former Mayor Elaine Cook denied a council member’s request to read every comment and said it was sufficient that the comments were published with meetings materials online.
The offer also demands that the city pay Duchastel’s attorney fees and pay $2,000 in penalties for its public records violations, which the letter states, would be donated to the ACLU of Western Washington and the Washington Coalition for Open Government.
“This sends a signal to the local government that you can’t just deny stuff and bully people,” Duchastel said.