Some Lynden council members question access to information on lawsuits against city

Lynden City Hall
Lynden City Hall jdonaldson@bhamherald.com

A heated discussion between Lynden City Council members unfolded at Monday night’s meeting about how city leaders have handled information regarding lawsuits against the city.

The conversation stemmed from a request Council Member Tobey Gelder made last week, Gelder said on Wednesday, for a document from an employee’s personnel file. Gelder made the request to Pam Brown, the city’s clerk, but said he heard nothing further after the message was passed onto Mayor Scott Korthuis.

Toward the end of Monday’s meeting, according to the city’s audio recording, Gelder made another request to discuss the “performance of a public employee” in an executive session scheduled immediately after the regular meeting. The discussion could only be added to the session if it was approved by a majority vote.

Gelder – who resigned at the end of Monday’s meeting – said Wednesday he was legally barred from saying which employee he intended to talk about in the session, but Korthuis, while clarifying Gelder’s request during the regular meeting, mentioned Assistant Fire Chief Robert Spinner. Spinner and the city are defendants in a federal lawsuit by a volunteer firefighter alleging Spinner didn’t offer the man a full-time position because of his Egyptian ethnicity and instead only gave him a part-time position.

“So your request has to do with A.C. Spinner?” Korthuis asked just before the vote.

“A ‘personnel issue’ is close enough,” Gelder responded.

Gelder’s request failed moments later in a 4-3 vote, with Council Members Gary Bode, Ron DeValois, Jerry Kuiken and Nick Laninga voting in opposition.

The vote seemed to inspire a discussion immediately afterward about how city administration – particularly Korthuis and Mike Martin, the city administrator – have controlled information about lawsuits against the city. In addition to the lawsuit with Spinner, three former female department heads have filed suit against Martin, Korthuis and the city, accusing Martin of discriminating against them on the basis of gender and age.

“It just seems like you guys want to shove everything under the carpet and make it go away – well, it’s not going to go away,” Council Member Brent Lenssen, who supported Gelder’s request, told Korthuis.

Bode, the only council member to oppose the performance discussion to chime in, said the “meddling of council people” has caused confusion, ill will and may have even contributed to the lawsuits against the city.

“If you’re communicating with the person contemplating suing the city, we need to stay away from that,” Bode said Thursday, when asked to clarify the comment. He declined to name names, only saying “one of them just resigned,” implying Gelder.

Gelder, who said he resigned after “nearly three years of dissatisfaction” with city leadership, responded on Thursday by saying he had worked with Amy Harksell, a former planning director and one of the lawsuit plaintiffs, on committee projects, but he knew where to draw the line once the lawsuit was filed.

“Is Amy a friend of mine? She most certainly is. Do I think she was treated badly? I most certainly do, and I made that allegation,” Gelder said. “But once those court cases are filed, you’ve just got to step back from it and I certainly did.”

Gelder also said the council hasn’t received regular updates on the lawsuits; Bode said the information has been made available to council members who have asked for it.

Korthuis did not immediately return a message requesting comment Thursday.

Kyle Mittan: 360-756-2803, @KyleMittan