By Jessie Stensland / Whidbey News-Times
The Island County prosecutor called an Island County commissioner “a terrible person” during a disagreement about public records that disintegrated into insults last week.
It wasn’t the first such scene between Prosecutor Greg Banks and Commissioner Jill Johnson, who have long had a strained relationship. Johnson called him a “snake” and a liar during a meeting three years ago.
Banks was invited to attend the commissioners’ regular meeting via video Jan. 12 to introduce a new deputy prosecutor and present a plaque to a longtime staff member. As the deputy prosecutor had trouble with the technology, Banks told the commissioners he would send a chat to the man.
Johnson interrupted him, saying that a “chat function” isn’t supposed to be used since it doesn’t retain the record in a way required by law. After Banks tried to continue, she said that officials shouldn’t follow the law only when they feel like it.
Banks told her that he wasn’t breaking public records rules. He said he would be happy to discuss the law with Johnson in private, but she countered that she’s not going to talk to him outside public meetings anymore.
“That’s just a ridiculous statement,” Banks said.
Later in the meeting, Banks explained that his role is to provide legal advice to the commissioners.
“If you have a misunderstanding,” he said to Johnson, “that’s a time when I can give you legal advice and clarify your questions.
“Trying to berate me at a public hearing, which you ordinarily do, is just not a good idea and is poor management.”
After Banks introduced Dave Jorgensen as the new deputy prosecutor in the civil division, the commissioner welcomed him.
“I hope you last longer than most of his employees,” Johnson said to the new employee.
Banks wasn’t happy with the comment.
“That was charming, Jill,” he said, laughing incredulously. “You are such a terrible person, Jill.”
At the end of the meeting, Johnson apologized to her fellow commissioners for the altercation and explained her feelings in a more measured tone.
Johnson said she understands that Banks believes the chats are transitory messages, which are not required to be retained.
Yet Johnson said the commissioners had banned the use of chats and reiterated the policy several times; she pointed out that the function can be used to harass people or inappropriately discuss government business without creating a record.
“As a government that values transparency,” she said, “we made the decision to inconvenience ourselves by turning the chat off because we couldn’t keep a record of it.”
She said she was frustrated to hear the prosecutor disregard the board’s “well-vetted” policy.
“I am far from a terrible person,” she added. “Far from it.”
In an email after the meeting, Banks said the episode was “an unfortunate distraction from what was supposed to be an opportunity to celebrate employees.”
Banks said he rarely uses the chat function, but when he does during meetings, there’s a simple way for the hosts to retain the chats as public records.
He also said the chats are a transitory record that had no value after being seen by the recipient.
Banks said his chats said things like “Dave, look at your system volume.”
Banks pointed to documents from Municipal Research and Services Center that explain transitory messages don’t need to be recorded.
In a comment to the News-Times, Johnson said it was the first time in public that Banks expressed his real feelings about one of his clients.
“We have a tense relationship, unfortunately,” she said. “I should have taken the high road.”
The bad blood between Banks and Johnson originated with — or at least was aggravated by — a lawsuit between the board of commissioners and Banks that found its way to the state Supreme Court in 2016.
The high 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 story originally appeared in the Whidbey News-Times, a sister publication to The Herald.