2022 was a tumultuous year for Sammamish City Council — one that saw three council members resign and city manager Dave Rudat removed from his post. A recent lawsuit against the city alleges those former council members, as well as current Councilmember Kent Treen, had colluded on city business using texts and messaging apps on their private phones, including through encrypted apps such as Slack and Signal.
The lawsuit was filed in March by Ramiro Valderrama, a former Sammamish deputy mayor, after the city failed to produce public records that he requested for those messages. According to Washington’s Public Records Act, city governments must make public records of any materials related to the actions of the government, and provide the public access to those records if requested.
Depositions from the lawsuit, obtained from April to July, revealed that there were tens of thousands of messages on city business hidden from public view. Those who used private channels to communicate include the council majority between 2020 and 2021 — Christie Malchow, Karen Moran, Ken Gamblin, Chris Ross, and Treen. Malchow, Moran, and Gamblin resigned from city council in 2022, while Ross’s term ended in 2021. Only Treen remains on council, and he is currently seeking re-election.
“The citizens have been severely impacted by this,” said Valderrama in an interview with the Sammamish Independent. “It’s going to take years to discover the true costs and consequences.”
After being elected in 2019, Treen and the four other council members allegedly discussed city business with each other, and with Sammamish residents who were not city officials — most notably Miki Mullor, the former editor of the Sammamish Comment, a local blog. These conversations were held through messaging apps on personal phones.
“The conversations [on Slack] digressed from campaign to city business,” Malchow said in her deposition, speaking about a Slack group she was part of. She said Treen, Gamblin, Moran, Ross and Mullor were all members of this group.
Through such backchannels, Mullor and other residents allegedly influenced the council majority’s short and long term policies, especially around curbing development of the town center in Sammamish.
In her deposition, Stephanie Rudat, daughter of the former city manager who was removed, said that Mullor “was able to control them. Not everyone on council, but many.”
The lawsuit alleges that many of the council members deleted messages. Due to the nature of the encrypted apps they used, many of these deleted records can never be recovered and provided as public records. In a similar lawsuit involving deleted messages in Seattle, taxpayers had to shoulder almost $200,000 in settlement.
During Treen’s deposition, Valderrama’s lawyers produced texts between Treen and Malchow from their personal phones in March 2020, in which Treen said “we need to encourage staff to deny their permit.” This was in reference to the proposed phase 1 of the Sammamish Town Center development. That permit was denied by the city in Nov. 2020.
“So a comment from a City councilmember to another councilmember saying we should encourage City staff to deny a permit is not about City business?” asked Valderrama’s lawyer to Treen during his deposition.
“This one could fall into that gray area where it could constitute City business depending on the perspective,” Treen replied.
Treen did not answer multiple requests for comment from the Sammamish Independent. In January, he was censured by the current council for allegedly lying on an affidavit that he did not use personal devices for city business. He refused to let city officials search his personal devices.
Valderrama believes the city should have taken more aggressive action in addressing Public Records Act violations by city council members before he had to file the lawsuit. However, he hopes the lawsuit will help change the city’s approach going forward. He plans to take the case to trial and seek the maximum penalty for the city.
“My whole thing is to see how the city can move forward from this and bring back transparency, [and good] governance,” Valderrama said.
To read the Valderrama lawsuit and depositions, go here.
Correction: The original version of this article indicated that Dave Rudat was “fired” from his post as city manager. This has been changed to “removed” to reflect the separation agreement that was approved by city council.