Kitsap County answers Greater Hansville Advisory Council lawsuit

PIERCE COUNTY — Legal documents currently resting in Pierce County Superior Court show feelings of neighborly affection are out the window in Hansville.

Kitsap County filed its rebuttal in Pierce County Superior Court on Wednesday to a lawsuit from two Hansville residents upset with the Greater Hansville Advisory Council.

The lawsuit, which names Kitsap County and 41 members of the advisory council, will be presented to each defendant. As of Thursday, seven GHAAC members and the county were served.

What began as a residential tiff turned into a legal battle on Oct. 1. That’s when Hansville residents John and Laurie Wiegenstein and Kingston attorney Gerald Kearney filed a lawsuit against Kitsap County and the GHAAC as Citizens for Accountable Government in Eglon and Hansville.

John Wiegenstein is an attorney with Heller Wiegenstein PLLC in Edmonds.

“I don’t believe they have any kind of case,” said Shelley Kneip, deputy prosecuting attorney for Kitsap County. Kneip and Kevin Howell, another deputy prosecuting attorney, will defend the county and all individual GHAAC members named in the suit, she said.

As of Oct. 22, responses to the lawsuit were filed on behalf of the county one GHAAC member, Kneip said.

The purpose of GHAAC and other community advisory groups is to represent those living in unincorporated areas of the county as a link to local government. Currently there are four advisory groups: GHAAC, Kingston Citizen Advisory Council, Suquamish Citizens Advisory Committee and Central Kitsap Community Council. Those who serve on the advisory boards are volunteers.

According to the filing, the lawsuit aims to cease operation of GHAAC. It claims GHAAC violated the First Amendment right to freedom of speech, violated its own bylaws and violated Washington’s Open Public Meetings Act. All these allegations were denied in responses filed on behalf of the county and GHAAC members.

“It’s not encouraging to people volunteering their time,” Kneip said, adding that suing 41 individuals seems “personally overboard.”

In response, Wiegenstein said the individuals were named because he questions the GHAAC as a separate, legal entity. If he was suing the Boeing Company, there wouldn’t be a need to serve its employees because they belong to a legal entity, he said.

“It’s really not a big deal (to serve 41 individuals) although it does take a large amount of time,” he said. “The lawsuit basically has two elements. The issues with the county are really based in fundamental questions of democracy and how your voice is heard by the county; and the claims that are lodged against the GHAAC members themselves — in a number of respects they haven’t followed their own bylaws.”

According to the two response filings, these claims are denied.

Kneip said this lawsuit is generating an extensive amount of work for herself and Howell and it’s taking them away from their regular work.

“Since last week, on this alone, I’ve spent 80 percent of my time,” she said, adding she oversees growth management actions, permitting, land use zoning and comprehensive plan changes in the county’s Department of Community Development. With DCDs recent elimination of 22 staff positions, the workload is even larger, she said.

“I’m not sure why it’s come down to this other than some of these people just happen to be attorneys. I’m not sure it would have gone to this if they hadn’t been attorneys.”

Since the initial lawsuit was filed, John Wiegenstein said about two dozen people joined the informal group Citizens for Accountable Government in Eglon and Hansville (CAGEH).

“So far, to my knowledge, membership has been developing by word of mouth (and ‘word of e-mail’ to some extent, I suppose) and has been pretty informal, without a lot of effort going into that,” he wrote in an e-mail.

He said he hopes the county secures approval for representing the remaining defendants yet to be served.

“That would relieve us of having to personally serve another 30 plus people,” he wrote, “and relieve them of the prospect of the process server knocking on their door during dinner and handing them the papers, which is something that most people instinctively (and understandably) don’t enjoy having happen.”

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