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Originally published Friday, July 19, 2013 at 9:55 PM

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Woodinville council members feud over civility, ‘bullying’

After Woodinville City Councilmember Susan Boundy-Sanders writes email that crudely attacks a colleague, council asks staff to draft a procedure for the censure of members violate council policy on decorum.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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When is enough enough?

Two Woodinville City Council members say they’ve had it with a colleague who wrote an email using crude language about one of them and a former mayor.

In a highly personal confrontation over civility and free speech in this city of 11,000, Deputy Mayor Liz Aspen and Councilwoman Paulette Bauman said the email is part of a pattern of “cyberbullying” that needs to be stopped.

By the time the message became a subject of debate at two council meetings, its author, Susan Boundy-Sanders, had apologized for her “harsh language” while still defending her right to say what she believes about her political foes.

The City Council asked staff Tuesday night to draft rules under which a member could be censured for violating existing council policy discouraging “personal insults, slanderous remarks and ad hominem attacks.”

Aspen read to the council portions of an email Boundy-Sanders sent to several political allies May 18 in support of council candidate James Evans, who had filed to run against Bauman.

Boundy-Sanders wrote that she and Mayor Bernie Talmas had recruited Evans for the race, quipping that they had “picked him up at a dive bar.”

Boundy-Sanders wrote that Evans held positions she agreed with on several land-use issues, but warned that Aspen and former Mayor Lucy DeYoung would try to influence him toward a more pro-development perspective.

“James seems to understand that Liz is The Mean Cafeteria Lady, and I’ve told James that Lucy DeYoung is The Evil Bitch-Queen, but Liz and Lucy will be starting NOW to try to pull him over to the Dark Side,” Boundy-Sanders wrote.

Aspen once worked in the cafeteria at Woodinville High School.

Bauman withdrew as a candidate for re-election before she saw the email, citing family issues and the “contentiousness” on the council.

Mayor Talmas said of the email: “I had nothing to do with drafting it or reviewing it. I had no idea until after it was sent out, and I expressed my disapproval to the author immediately after it was sent out.”

More than two weeks later, Boundy-Sanders sent another message to the recipients of the first email, copied with an “FYI” to Aspen, Bauman and DeYoung. “Although we disagree widely on policy issues,” Boundy-Sanders wrote, “it was not my intent to personally humiliate these individuals. I apologize for any discomfort they may have experienced on having my email forwarded to them.”

The follow-up email didn’t mollify Aspen and Bauman, who dismissed it as a non-apology. They decided to propose a prohibition on cyberbullying, saying they were disturbed by a pattern of abusive language by Boundy-Sanders.

“Studies show that it usually will not stop until bullying is exposed,” Aspen said.

Boundy-Sanders, meanwhile, made it clear she wouldn’t stop talking about her differences with Bauman, including votes on downtown zoning and residential zoning that Boundy-Sanders portrays as conflicts of interest.

Bauman did not violate the city ethics code, according to the city attorney, when she voted to allow higher-density development downtown, where her parents own property, and to allow subdivision of residential properties that, like her own, are slightly under one acre.

If her votes were improper, Bauman said, then Boundy-Sanders shouldn’t be promoting acquisition of permanent open space on a landslide-prone hill behind her own house.

“It’s nastiness,” Bauman said of Boundy-Sanders’ sometimes-sharp tongue. “It’s meant to smear candidates or political officials she disagrees with. It’s an intimidation tactic she has used often on the dais when she’s talking to other council members she disagrees with.”

Among the emotional issues council members have feuded over, Bauman and Aspen support annexing some rural Sammamish Valley land for commercial expansion. Boundy-Sanders opposes that proposal, which would require King County approval.

“They have a policy goal, and I am interfering with their policy goal,” Boundy-Sanders said, “so they are using one tool at their disposal to undermine my arguments, and that tool is activation of the bullying issue.”

Aspen, Bauman and Scott Hageman voted to consider a new censure process. Boundy-Sanders and Talmas voted no. Art Pregler and Les Rubstello abstained.

Aspen’s original motion on bullying would have made hurtful or disparaging online comments about other council members a violation of the city ethics code. But City Attorney Greg Rubstello told the council Tuesday that, because ethics violations are misdemeanors, that could infringe on council members’ free-speech rights.

Paraphrasing a citizen who earlier spoke against the motion, Rubstello said, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. Politicians need thick skins.”

The state Supreme Court has suggested that elected officials’ recourse for criticism from colleagues they feel is unfair isn’t to fine the critics, “but to talk back, set the record straight,” and let the voters decide whether to re-elect them, Rubstello said.

In a separate action that also reflected deep divisions, the council tabled until January a motion that would allow members to remove the mayor or deputy mayor — who are council members — from the ceremonial offices before completion of their two-year terms.

Bauman, who introduced the motion, said she didn’t intend to seek to remove Talmas’ as mayor. She said she proposed it as another way to hold council members accountable for their words and deeds.

She acknowledged unhappiness with Talmas for a number of past actions, including his refusal to sign an annexation resolution approved by the council, and his claim that Hageman had moved out of the city and wasn’t eligible to remain on the council.

A citizen’s challenge to Hageman’s registration as a Woodinville voter eligible to serve on the council was dropped after Hageman filed a new Woodinville address with King County Elections.

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or kervin@seattletimes.com

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