Posted by: sweeneyblog | February 29, 2012

An Interview with Tim Paxton

An interview with Tim Paxton

For a guy who is the plaintiff in a lawsuit against the County Council, Tim Paxton is remarkably laid back about the whole affair. Donning a sharp baseball cap, he sits across to me and explained how it all started.

“I had done some work with Greg Overstreet (no relation to Rep. Overstreet) on my previous disclosure requests. When I was investigating Dan Pike’s Hatch Act violations, Overstreet helped me out. Well, flash-forward a bit. I get a call from Breann Beggs, he and Overstreet are looking to make an example of County governments that break the Open Public Meetings Act, but they needed a plaintiff. So I signed on.”

So what exactly did they do wrong? “The county council received a public records request from a citizen living on Lummi island pertaining to the Ferry dispute. Instead of, you know, filling the request, they emailed each other about what their options are. By sharing a whole string of emails, they were having a secret meeting about whether or not they were going to break the law by not filling the public records request,” said Paxton.

This is not the first time the County Council has gotten in trouble over this issue. Sam Crawford especially consistently uses his private email for public business and has been reprimanded. See my previous reporting on this subject here, and then again here and here.

I asked Paxton why a lawsuit was necessary to make the point that they are breaking the law, considering the State Auditor already found them guilty in December of 2011. “The Council has already shown that it is willing to ignore the law in these situations. The only result of the Auditor’s decision was a memo that ‘strongly recommended’ that the Council not do that again.” It should be noted that when that memo came out, Barbara Brenner stated that she would keep doing whatever she liked and would ignore the memo. You can read the State Auditor’s letter (which was described as a “yellow light” not a “red light” in terms of seriousness) right here.

“There is this perception,” Paxton said. “That if you go up and testify before the council, that logic will prevail. That’s just not true. The only thing they respond to is a lawsuit.” The lawsuit itself is pretty tame. It only asks that the Council admit that they are wrong, and pay any of the plaintiff’s legal fees. Right now that is just a couple thousand dollars. “There is no teeth in the Public Meetings Act,” Paxton contends, “so it falls to active citizens to ensure that our council do the right thing.”

County Councilman Ken Mann took issue with this lawsuit and directly responded to it on the Herald Politics blog calling the lawsuit, “This might be the most pathetic, transparently self-serving and self-indulgent, sanctimonious, hypocritical, and senseless lawsuit of all time.”  He had previously expressed frustration over having to fill public records requests, and continued his statement, “If anybody bothered to read the emails that the State Auditor commented on, they would find that they are eminently boring. Nothing juicy, nothing secret, nothing nefarious. They are a public record after all – so if we wanted to be “secret” that is the stupidest place to do it.”

Paxton, having read this response, offered up this quip. “It is breaking the law, their opinion about whether or not it is juicy or nefarious doesn’t matter, we don’t get to see it and decide for ourselves.”

You, the reader at home, can judge for yourself by reading the three emails here, here and hereIn my opinion, they aren’t terribly controversial, however there is still the issue of doing the right thing in response to public records requests.

But Mann wasn’t done, he aimed his fire at Paxton himself, “As for Mr. Paxton’s agenda or goals, nobody has any idea what he wants. Money? Political statement? Fame? Glory? He wants us to admit guilt? We already did that.” Which is not entirely true. The State Auditor found that you were guilty of breaking the law, that’s a little different than coming right out and saying, yes, we were doing something illegal.

Paxton responded to the other charge. “This effort is costing me time and money, all I wanted was to draw attention to their illegal activity. Ken responding only furthers that goal.” Paxton stressed the importance of a strong public records and open meetings laws. “We need to be able to check up on our public officials.”

Continuing the thread of comments on the Herald blog, Ken Mann made an interesting point. He said, “I love public disclosure laws. You have never heard me complain about their existence. In the right hands much good does come from them. We absolutely need those laws and need concerned citizens who are willing to spend the time to implement them. What I deplore is the *abuse* of those laws for harassment or personal financial gain.”

Which is interesting considering that he was quite literally complaining about public records laws back in 2010 on his blog. So it comes down to the basic conflict between common sense use of public records requests (asking for emails relating to the Lummi Ferry negotiations), the governments efforts to avoid disclosure (the council’s secret email meetings) and the public’s right to know.

It should be noted that Paxton did a whole series of records requests relating to Dan Pike, and even went so far as to publish his divorce records online. The Political Junkie, who clearly is not a big Pike fan, thought that this was way over the line. Objecting to campaign tactics, public policy, and the like is one thing, but delving into their personal lives is a bit beyond the pale. I was handed a couple of big stories during the last campaign cycle that I decided to shelve because they involved the personal lives of those involved. In this world of blogging, it is important to have clear ethical standards.

But back to the interview. As we were wrapping up, Tim Paxton made a very good point. “If they are making decisions about whether or not to release public documents in secret, what other decisions are they making that we don’t know about. Decisions related to the coal port perhaps? This is why we cannot let these things slide.”



  1. Thanks for this interview – it really clarified what’s going on. Methinks that Ken Mann doth protest too much. I wish he had taken the time to speak privately with Tim to learn what this interview reveals, rather than going straight to demonizing. It is not for Ken or other governing officials to decide what in Council correspondence is ‘boring’ or not. Citizens have the right to see out for themselves.

    Interesting that the PRD is related to the lease with the Lummis. That process is something that the County IMHO should definitely had kept out in the open, rather than wrapping it in total secrecy. If the process had crashed because the LN wanted secret dealings, the process should have crashed.

    Kudos to Tim Paxton and the others who simply want to hear the Council (and any other officials involved) *admit* they were wrong. The sooner they do that, the less it will cost we taxpayers (including Tim Paxton). But then … would there be any further legal consequences Councilors might face? I doubt it, given laws protecting government officials from liability for decisions they make.

  2. In fairness to CouncilorKen Mann (and taking my Devil’s Advocate Hi Tops for a stroll), Ken never complained about the existence of public disclosure laws. He did complain about how some of those disclosure laws have been used. I take the Political Junkie’s underlying point, nonetheless.

  3. The glory of Paxton’s lawsuit is it proceeds from a finding procedural facts already examined and found wanting by the State Auditor’s Office. “Guilt” in a sense is already established. And all the council has to do is confess to what they’ve already essentially confessed to and pay Paxton his legal fees. if they can’t do that, it exposes their own hubris and continued financial recklessness: They. Will. Lose.

    A pretty little trap, Tim, very pretty.

    Ken’s frustration comes, I think, from having to revisit a matter he considers resolved. It was resolved, Ken, except no one had to publicly admit fault and accept blame. Sometimes the best cure comes from medicine that tastes bad.

    • I agree that the lawsuit is best settled swiftly, and I understand Ken’s frustrations. It isn’t fun having to deal with public records requests and being careful to document everything, but it is one of the burdens of public service.

  4. Actually, what is frustrating is journalists that parrot the talking points of a bottom-feeding extortionist without bothering to check the facts.

    • I’ve included links to the documents involved in the lawsuit (the emails, and the State Auditor’s letter) and noted that this matter was not considered a “Red light” issue when it came out.

      But I’m sure that you and I can both agree about the importance of public oversight into the government process.

    • ken , who exactly are you calling a bottom feeding extortionist ?

  5. Not that a public official would ever personally attack a private citizen over the public’s right to transparency and public disclosure, because that might not look so good…


  6. I am criticizing a Seattle attorney and his puppet for abusing and exploiting our glorious democracy to extract money from his fellow citizens. As a result of this type of behavior, the state is contemplating restricting disclosure laws. So your friend can bang the table of principles with one hand while holding out the other for a personal payoff, and the result will be more barriers to that transparency you claim to support. See articles about incarcerated felons filing hundreds of PDRs in order to gum up the system, etc…

  7. Ken, chill. It’s public disclosure. It’s not as if someone accused you of extortion or fraud or something. It’s simple…the council acquiesces and everyone goes back to Pinterest.

    • Frances, the only thing left to “acquiesce” about is giving him money. Everything else he purports to seek has been done – and was done *before* this lawsuit was filed. So, they filed a lawsuit with the only agenda being attorney’s fees. Do you see?

      • I see that you think this is motivated by financial gain. I also see that you’re wrong about that, at least where Tim is concerned. I also see that this really bugs you. Now back to Pinterest.

  8. What is pinterest?

  9. I’m a Ken Mann fan,
    and especially liked the way he capitulated under protest at the MRL hearing to spare the county yet another potential lawsuit
    though not before searing the lawyer lady with Laser Eyes of Indignation.
    But getting your back up over the repercussions of a mistake made
    is very poor taste being that you have no control over this or any other plaintiff.

  10. […] notables. Seth Fleetwood listens in the overflow area City Councilman Stan Snap and Rabble Rouser Tim Paxton exchange words Whatcom Dems chair Natalie McClendon enters while police officer looks on Washington […]

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