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Bellingham Municipal Court Judge Lev Sues the City

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Yesterday afternoon, Thursday, May 27, Debra Lev, the elected municipal judge for Bellingham, filed a lawsuit in Whatcom County Superior Court against Bellingham Mayor Seth Fleetwood and the City of Bellingham. I heard about this late Thursday afternoon and planned to check it out Friday morning.  No need.   

For once, the Bellingham Herald posted an article on the issue quickly last night about 6 pm. Denver Pratt wrote the story with old fashioned daily newspaper speed and, obviously, the editor enabled it to be posted.  Sooo good to see the Herald report a breaking local issue so quickly.  Unfortunately the story in not in this morning's print edition of the Herald.  

Lev's lawsuit claims the mayor and city staff are illegally interfering in the municipal court system, administration, and practices. Her lawsuit is suing for an injunction to stop them. 

Bellingham's Municipal Court has a rocky history.  Back in the 1990s, the city pushed this court onto the county only to have it pushed back onto the city in 2002. Then city hall was upset that Deb Lev was elected because they wanted to put one of their own in the judge seat. So a city attorney wrote an ordinance creating the office of hearing examiner, the council and mayor approved it, and then the attorney was appointed to position by the mayor.  Sweet inside deal. Now the hearing examiner gets many cases that would have gone to the municipal judge. This hearing examiner is essentially a city hired judge, and usually does the city's bidding on neighborhood issues.  Under Seth Fleetwood, our city is bringing in hired guns as hearing examiners for specific cases and thus running roughshod over neighborhood concerns about illegal city planning permits. The independent municipal court should be handling these cases. This is basic, essential justice that impacts the lives of all of Bellingham. The single municipal judge is elected, and Deb Lev is up for reelection this fall.  She is running unopposed.

The Herald article was updated late last night and again this morning and has taken on a pro-employee/union perspective, quoting extensively from the court employees' union representative about what court employees are supposedly saying. According to the union rep, several employees walked off the job yesterday because of workplace harassment.  

The issue is not whether there is poor management in the municipal court. The question is which government agency has legal jurisdiction when such concerns arise in Washington's courts. Does the mayor have authority under Washington laws to interfere in the affairs of the municipal court?

The answer is the Washington State Supreme Court has  jurisdiction, just as the U.S. Supreme Court has jurisdiction over all U.S. federal courts. The lawsuit says the mayor has no legal authority to investigate the municipal court system, and this accusation will be tested in Whatcom County Superior Court. Finally, the 18 year simmering jealousy of city hall administration for the numicipal court is coming into the open.

Some of the smaller towns in Whatcom County, like Ferndale, have hired - contracted - local attorneys to act as their municipal judges, and thus these courts may not be under the jurisdiction of the Washington State Supreme Court.  But Bellingham has an elected judge and probably does fall under that jurisdiction.  

There are other factors that color this issue. To the surprise of many, Mayor Fleetwood kept the previous mayor's office staff. This is not a good practice as their first allegiance is not to him. This lawsuit names Brian Heinrich, one of Fleetwood's staff who is a holdover from the Linville administration. Many of us have marveled that Fleetwood would keep Heinrich, and word was Heinrich was just as surprised as the rest of us.  

Another factor that may play into this is that long-time city attorney, Peter Ruffatto resigned in March. Ruffatto was conservative in his advice to the mayors on city activities; many progressives felt he was too conservative. He was replaced as city attorney by his assistant, Alan Marriner, who is thought by some to be impulsive and over confident. So the question becomes, if Fleetwood has violated state law by overreaching into the court system, who gave him that advice? City hall began poking into the court system in April, right after Alan Marriner became city attorney. 

Finally, it should be noted that Mayor Fleetwood is himself a lawyer who has practiced in Bellingham for decades.  He should know better, and my guess is Marriner got him into this, along with Heinrich's help.

Comments by Readers

Ray Kamada

May 28, 2021

Good post. I knew nothing about it and suspect my ignorance is widespread.

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Dick Conoboy

May 28, 2021

John,

This reminds me of a thought I had a while aback about the city council having its own attorney.  Why does a legislative body depend on the legal advice of an attorney hired  by the executive?  Complaints abound about the city council being staff driven.  Moreover, the council’s “staff” is extremely sparse (2) given the amount of issues that run across the council dais every year.  And we may remember when a council member a few years ago wanted to place the legislative researcher on half-time to be able to hire someone to “communicate” for the council.  At times the council is its own worst opponent.  I think the council should have a larger staff and its own attorney, if ony a part time position. 

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John Servais

May 28, 2021

Dick, no question. The council would be far more independent and effective in representing the people who elect them if they actually asserted their own independence from the mayor and his staff. Staff literally keeps the council in bondage.  In past years when paper packets were given to each council member before a council meeting, staff might leave a key page out of the packet of a too independent council member - and they would then express an opinion in public discussion that was totally in error, making themselves look foolish.  Council members learned to be careful before going against what staff wanted.  Staff - especially planning and public works - have many subtle ways to keep council members in line.  

Council needs its own attorney, its own research staff and more.  Some can simply be transferred from the mayor to the council.  Hopefully some of the new council members we will get this year - at least 2 and hopefully 3 new ones - will take more initiative and transform our city council into a truly independent legislative branch.  Long time overdue.  

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Ray Kamada

May 28, 2021

Reminds me of a grand jury lapping up whatever the DA tells them.

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Margo Terrill

May 28, 2021

Ray K, I was also ignorant. Wow, very interesting! Good reporting John Servais. Thank you.

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Karen Steen

May 29, 2021

Thank you, John, for making comprehensible these bizarre developments. I join you in crediting the Herald with timely, public service reporting. I’ve followed the Herald’s online coverage and been clear only about my embarrassment by and for City administration.

I see the tyranny of nice at play here, closely related to oppressive political correctness and cancel culture, and Mayor Fleetwood has taken the bait at taxpayers’ expense. Seems to me City Hall needs reminding that our encoded governance is by three independent democratically elected bodies, not by mob rule of self-absorbed ideologues who sucker punch elected officials.

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Bob Burr

May 30, 2021

The Herald article was great reporting—the type we need from a local newspaper. Thanks to you, John and Dick for adding relavant past and better future to the discussion.

 

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