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County Superior Court will look at South Prairie issues
By Shawn Skager
Another round in the ongoing fracas between opposing members of the South Prairie town council played out this past week.
Despite a temporary restraining order, filed by town resident Bill Thurston, blocking the council from meeting to discuss a possible settlement with RV park owner Dwight Partin, and threats of being dropped by the town's insurance carrier, three members of the town's council conducted a special meeting Thursday.
Pierce County Superior Court Judge Meagan M. Foley will hear the injunction at 9:30 a.m. today, Wednesday.
Despite the injunction, South Prairie councilmembers conducted a meeting Thursday.
“There was an illegal meeting,” Councilmember and Mayor-elect Peggy Levesque, who did not attend the meeting, said. “Evidently they did meet, Chandra Hairston, Chuck Bonato and Robert Stanbary on the front porch of the town hall.”
The strife centers around Partin's park, which is home to close to 200 of the town's 440 residents.
In the mid-1990s Partin filed a $4.5 million lawsuit against the city, alleging he was denied promised sewer hook-ups and land use permits.
The city of South Prairie has been under a sewer hookup moratorium since 1994, when the Washington State Department of Ecology found the city was in violation of regulations regarding the amount of sewage dumped into South Prairie Creek.
Although Partin's lawsuit is scheduled to go before the Pierce County Superior Court in March, three members of the town's five-person council - Hairston, who was formerly the park's manager; Bonato, who is Partin's half-brother; and Stanbary, who is a friend of Partin's - called for a special meeting Dec. 22.
On the agenda a proposal to force a vote for a $450,000 settlement to Partin's $4.5 million lawsuit against the city.
The meeting would have marked the last council action for the majority block of the council, who will lose their majority Jan. 1 when write-in candidate Laura K. Heideman replaces Bonato in the Council Position No. 5 seat.
According to City Attorney Mike Reynolds, the proposal called for the city to pay Partin before Dec. 31 or face $250 a day in fines.
The Dec. 22 meeting was cancelled when Thurston, who owns property overlooking the RV park, filed a temporary restraining order against the council.
Reynolds said he advised the council they should not approve the settlement for three reasons.
“No. 1, you have the restraining order,” he explained.
According to Reynolds, Thurston's restraining order would legally prevent the council from making any decision on the case financially.
Secondly, Reynolds cited the threat of being dropped by the city's insurance company who is orchestrating the litigation in the Partin case.
Reynolds said the council is trying to control the litigation in the case by offering the settlement and “that interferes with our contractual obligation with the insurance company.”
Reynolds cited the legality of a financial appropriation at a special meeting, which is forbidden by the state's open meeting law, as the third reason he advised against the settlement.
In response to the cancellation of the Dec. 22 meeting, the majority members of the South Prairie council, called for a second special meeting to be conducted Dec. 29.
According to Reynolds the second special meeting also violates the state's open meetings act.
“I think the notice is inadequate,” Reynolds said.
The Revised Code of Washington calls for at least 24-hour notice for a special meeting.
In fact, according to town clerk Marla Neville, the meeting was not advertised by her office with either this paper or the town's official paper of record, the Orting Country Gazette.
“I was told by the mayor (Layne Ross) not to post the meeting notice,” she said. “There was a notice posted, but it wasn't by us. It was not on town letterhead. It was on plain paper.”
According to Neville, she was told to take the plain paper notice down and post another notice on town letterhead stating there will not be a special meeting conducted.
“All I know is that I instructed the town staff to take down any postings (of meetings),” Ross said. “There is no official meeting happening today (Dec. 29). There will be no meeting until after the court date on Jan. 4.”
Ross said the restraining order clearly stated no official council business could be conducted until the Pierce County Superior Court hears the case. Until then, Ross said any meeting would be illegal.
“There is a restraining order and I'm not putting the town in jeopardy,” he said. “If they meet it will be a gathering and not a council meeting. If the council would meet it would be bad news for the town. Anyone attending the meeting could be arrested.”
According to Hairston, who was unsuccessful in a mayoral bid this year, the council majority's resolution did not call for any settlement money.
“Since last week there has been another resolution written which dismisses everything across the board,” she said. “No money is involved.”
Despite warnings against taking any action, Levesque said the majority members passed a resolution on Dec. 29.
“They got a resolution that both Dwight Partin and Chandra Hairston signed, saying everybody would pay their own lawyer's fees,” she said.
According to Levesque, the resolution was slipped through the mail slot of the Town Hall.
Ross said when he found out about the meeting and the resolution, he told Neville to collect all the paperwork pertaining to the Dec. 29 meeting and turn them into the court.
“It didn't award the $450,000,” Levesque said. “I've talked to Mike Reynolds and he thinks that it is invalid because it was posted illegally. The meeting was not a valid meeting, so therefore it's not a valid resolution.”
Hairston said her main purpose is to just put the matter to rest.
“We've been trying to do that but the town and everybody else has been trying to stop us which makes no sense because it doesn't cost them anything,” she added. “We've been trying to work on this for two years now. We just want to get it done.”
Levesque, who defeated Hairston in the mayoral race this November and will assume office Jan. 1, said she is aware of the alternate ordinance, but that it doesn't change the restraining order.
“Evidently there is another ordinance out there,” Levesque said. “The restraining order however, says that the council should not take any action at all until it's heard by the court.
“As to what happens next I don't know,” Levesque said. “All this will be brought before the court on Wednesday (today).”
Shawn Skager can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.