Deep-rooted tensions boiled over Wednesday when Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks asked the county board of commissioners for permission to hire an outside attorney for litigation regarding Wright’s Crossing. The combative meeting included yelling, name calling and accusations of lying.
Wright’s Crossing LLC is asking a judge to reverse the county commissioners’ decision to exclude a requested expansion of Oak Harbor’s urban growth area, or UGA, from the planning department’s docket. This requested expansion would be the first step in allowing for the proposed large-scale development south of the city.
“This kind of litigation could involve teams of lawyers on opposing sides,” Banks said at the meeting.
His request was not well received by commissioners Helen Price Johnson and Jill Johnson. Johnson pointed out the “irony” of the ask, referring to a lawsuit involving the board, Banks and a private attorney. In 2016, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the commissioners acted in an unlawful and unconstitutional manner when they hired a private attorney over the objection of Banks. This lawsuit was referenced frequently during the discussion, which lasted approximately 45 minutes.
“The board saw a similar constraint on your services a number of years ago and requested assistance to hire outside counsel, and we were denied because you said you had ample resources,” said Price Johnson, raising her voice. “Can you explain for me what is different about your office now compared to then, when you said you had ample resources?”
Banks argued the previous situation was different, and in that case hiring an outside attorney was unlawful. The lawsuit argued the commissioners outside attorney usurped the prosecutor’s role as legal advisor to the county. Under the law and state Constitution, it’s the county prosecutor’s job to provide legal advice to the board.
Johnson insisted the commissioners did nothing illegal.
“The supreme court would disagree,” Banks responded.
“One supreme court justice told Commissioner Price Johnson she didn’t even read the case,” Johnson said.
Commissioner Rick Hannold said arguments over the 2016 lawsuit were “water under the bridge” for him, and he was supportive of hiring an outside attorney if it seemed necessary. Banks said this lawsuit has the potential to take up a lot of staff time and other projects would have to be set aside. Additionally, Wright’s Crossing also recently submitted a petition for review to the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board that claims the commissioners were “illegally stalling” the project.
However, Johnson made it clear the past lawsuit was not water under the bridge for her.
“I would say I don’t trust you and that’s my issue with outside counsel and under your direction,” she said.
Banks said he didn’t know what Johnson was worried he might do, and his only intentions were to defend the county. He grew visibly frustrated during the heated discussion, and was told multiple times by Price Johnson to stop interrupting the commissioners.
“I’m sitting here putting up with the usual torment and abuse because this should be such a simple thing, but you want to dig back into your illegal actions from a couple years ago because you can’t acknowledge the fact that I advised you that it was illegal, you did it anyway and you lost,” he said. “Can we move on?”
Banks said he had been bullied by the board for years, after being called a bully himself by Johnson.
Some of the contention also revolved around Banks’ request that the attorney’s contract either not have a spending cap or have one that’s considered flexible, so as not to communicate to the opposition how much the county would be willing to spend on the litigation. He also recommended discussing the budgetary aspect of the contract in executive session, rather than in public meetings.
Johnson and Hannold both said they felt it was unclear what was legal and illegal for the commissioners to discuss in executive session, with Johnson saying she hadn’t received consistent advice on the subject. She accused Banks of taking advantage of this and pointing out when the board did something wrong.
“We know for a fact you notify the press on those things, because we’ve seen the text messages,” she said. “You make us look bad.”
Toward the end of the meeting, Price Johnson said the relationship between the board and prosecutor’s office had “nowhere to go but up.” The relationship seemed unlikely to improve soon, as the comments got increasingly personal.
“You can stab me in the back when you have the chance, we all know your personality,” said Johnson, pointing at Banks. “You’re a snake.”
The board eventually decided to move forward with hiring an outside attorney to have available if required. The amount to be spent, and from which account, had not been decided yet, according to Budget Director Elaine Marlow.