Judge blocks release of Yakima County clerk texts

ELLENSBURG — A judge has blocked the release of 95 text messages between the Yakima County clerk and a male office employee who filed a sexual harassment complaint against her last year, ruling that a reasonable person would find the contents “highly offensive.”

The Yakima Herald-Republic had sought the release of all documents regarding the harassment complaint in a public records request to Yakima County after receiving an anonymous tip in January.

Kittitas County Superior Court Judge Frances Chmelewski ruled Tuesday that the contents of the messages aren’t a matter of legitimate concern, and that while they are public records, releasing them would violate Kim Eaton’s rights.

Eaton, a Republican, was appointed county clerk in 1992 and elected to the position in 1994. She has since won re-election to new four-year terms.

The male employee who filed the complaint has worked in her office since about 2005. Both before and after he was hired, he was Eaton’s friend as well as her insurance agent, according to documents filed by Eaton’s attorney.

Herald-Republic editor Bob Crider said the newspaper sought the records to determine how well Eaton, who has been county clerk since 1992, is performing her job.

It wasn’t until after the newspaper decided to pursue the records in court that it learned how many “highly embarrassing” text messages were sent, said Crider, who expressed disappointment with the judge’s ruling.

“The fact that (the judge) emphasized that ‘without a doubt’ they are highly offensive to a reasonable person leads people to speculate they are really bad,” he said.

Eaton, currently on medical leave and contacted on her cellphone, told the newspaper Wednesday she had no comment.

According to court records, the employee filed the complaint with the county’s human resources department in September, requesting that Eaton limit communication to work-related matters. A county investigation was conducted.

At some point, Eaton agreed to end personal communications with the employee and to limit interactions to work-related issues, ending the matter. Since then, the pair has worked together without incident, according to court documents filed on Eaton’s behalf.

The county had planned to release the contents of its file on the complaint until Eaton obtained a temporary restraining order in Kittitas County Superior Court. Her attorney filed the case in an adjacent county because Yakima County is a defendant.

Yakima County took no stand in court regarding whether the records should be released.

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