A reader comment, under my brief article reporting city attorney James Erb being found guilty of “unethical behavior” by the Superior Court, says she backs the mayor because he is trying to eliminate workplace abuse in the Municipal Court. This is a reply to her comment and a summary of what we actually know about this situation. For starters, we do not know if there has been workplace abuse, as there has not been a single comment from a single employee. We have heard only one side of this story and that only from union bosses. We also know the city has been unhappy with the independence of Municipal Court Judge Debra Lev. The mayor and city attorneys would prefer someone more aligned with their own interpretations of our regulations and visions for the city.
This issue seems to stem from two decades of the city's frustration. In 2001, the city created the Municipal Court and in November of that year, Deb Lev beat Stark Follis in a landslide for the judge position. Some of us old timers remember Follis being favored by the city and they were certainly upset that Lev won. She was not one of the good old boys. However, she has been popular with voters as she has been reelected every four years since then and is running unopposed this November.
Yet today, we have city attorney and wanna-be judge, James Erb, who, after losing two elections - judge and county prosecutor - has not only failed to advance his career, but has been found guilty of “unethical behavior” for attempting to bully our repeatedly-elected municipal judge, Deb Lev. In the past, it was apparently only the restraining hand of former city attorney, Peter Ruffatto, who resigned in March, that kept attorneys Alan Mariner and James Erb in check. With Ruffatto gone, they have convinced Fleetwood to allow them to attack the court, possibly for some reasons of advantage to the executive. And they have now been convicted of “unethical behavior” in Superior Court. Chaos now reigns as people are confused about what is actually happening and why.
Here are the basics of this confusing mess we find in our city government.
Key and unique to our system of government is that of separate but equal branches to provide checks and balances. These branches are: the legislative branch which makes laws, the executive branch that carries them out, and the judicial that defines what laws mean in specific situations.
Crucial to these three branches being able to work together is that each branch must police, manage, and control their own processes. Without that autonomy, one branch could interfere with, dominate, or corrupt another branch, thereby subverting its independence. There are constitutional provisions on both the national and state levels that define when one branch can interfere to “correct” another branch - such as the legislative branch stepping in to impeach the executive.
In this local situation, there are two issues, the first being whether there are work place problems at the court, and the second being who is responsible for investigating and fixing those problems. In fact, the state court system has the legal responsibility of investigating and fixing work place problems in every Superior, District and Municipal Court of every county and city in the state of Washington. However in this case, our executive branch, the mayor and his city attorneys, have tried to interfere in our judicial branch.
The only information the Weekly and Herald have reported is what the union representatives have said about possible work place problems. The appropriate process would have been for the union to have reported these possible work place abuses to the state court system. For reasons that have not been explained, this union chose to approach Mayor Fleetwood, who, as an attorney, should have redirected the union to the judicial branch. He did not.
We are a nation of laws, whose structures and constitutions exist to guide us when solving problems. We have all agreed, for instance, that individuals cannot go into someone’s home with a gun because they suspect the neighbor is abusing their partner or children. Likewise, we have agreed that no branch of the government can simply suspect another branch is corrupt and go in, take over, and start “fixing” things, i.e. ordering people to stop working, or leave, or cooperate, or be fired. There is a legal system and process we have already agreed to employ. In this case, the executive branch of the mayor and city attorneys is neither the system, the process, nor even the right branch of government to be involved.
It is a basic tenet of our democracy.
In closing, I encourage you to read a letter we posted a week ago from Mary Kay Becker, a retired state appeals court judge. She served 25 years on our Washington Court of Appeals and is truly a voice of authority on this issue. She is well known and respected in Bellingham.