Judge sends Langley mayor to jail for 15 days
By JESSIE STENSLAND
Whidbey News Times Assistant editor
December 18, 2012 · Updated 1:36 PM
Langley Mayor Larry Kwarsick will have to spend more than two weeks in jail and will likely resign from office after pleading guilty to a gross misdemeanor charge for falsifying a city record.
Island County Superior Court Judge Vickie Churchill shocked many in the courtroom Monday by sentencing Kwarsick to 15 days in jail after both the prosecutor and defense recommended that he serve no jail time. In fact, several of Kwarsick's supporters were noticeably outraged.
Churchill scolded Kwarsick for breaking the public trust after a 40-year career as a public servant. In addition to being a popular mayor, Kwarsick is currently the planning director in Coupeville and previously worked as the planning director in Langley and Island County.
"What you did was to betray that public confidence," Churchill said. "I'm sorry, I don't think anyone who does that should remain in office."
Kwarsick pleaded guilty to one count of false report of a public official for falsifying a document when he was Langley's contracted community planning director in 2011. He admitted to backdating a document related to his stepdaughter's home construction project to make it look like his predecessor wrote it, then filing it with the city.
The document, which Kwarsick wrote on his home computer to appear to be an official city report, improperly removed conditions from the project.
Kwarsick sat quietly during the hearing, appearing sad and contrite. He spoke briefly on his own behalf. He said he had "a long history of integrity" and that his actions were an ethical breach, regardless of the severity.
"I'm proud of my 40 years of public service," he told the judge. "I am not proud to be here in front of you."
Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks said he worked out a plea agreement with Kwarsick's attorney, Charles Arndt of Coupeville. Under the settlement, Banks and Arndt both recommended that Kwarsick receive a suspended 364 day sentence, which means no jail time, and pay a $2,500 fine.
In addition, Banks said Kwarsick admitted his guilt to malfeasance and would no longer be able to hold public office. In an interview afterward, Banks said the law and a Supreme Court decision appeared to be clear on this point, but there's no automatic mechanism to remove a mayor for malfeasance.
Banks conjectured that Kwarsick's attorney may read the law differently and that Kwarsick could simply continue going to work, at least until some other court action forced him from office.
Kwarsick didn't return a call for comment.
Monday, Arndt emphasized that Kwarsick was taking responsibility at the earliest possible time. It is very rare, he said, for a defendant to plead guilty at arraignment.
The courtroom was crowded with Kwarsick's supporters, including several council members, but there were also a few detractors.
"Mr. Kwarsick has made some friends and enemies in his role of planning director of Island County and the city of Langley," Banks noted.
Several of the people who spoke on Kwarsick's behalf urged the judge to allow him to continue as mayor because he's done such a stellar job since taking office in January.
"Larry Kwarsick has accomplished more in one year than any other mayor in a long time," Councilman Bruce Allen said.
Councilwoman Rene Neff said a lot of people would be grateful if Kwarsick could remain in office.
Councilman Jim Sundberg asked the judge to consider the context of Kwarsick's actions; he claimed the mayor caused little or no harm to the public. He suggested that the $2,500 fine be reduced.
On the other side, a couple of environmentalists said the former planning director deserved to be punished. Ken Pickard of Coupeville said Kwarsick's "serious" crime warranted more than a $2,500 fine.
Langley resident Marianne Edain said her public records request, which she later sent to blogger Skip Demuth, brought Kwarsick's illegal action to light. She claimed that she found even more irregularities in Langley planning documents.
"It is necessary for a public official to be trustworthy," she said. "When a document is altered, the trust is broken."
In pronouncing her sentence, Churchill emphasized how disappointed she was in Kwarsick's actions after his lengthy career in public service. She said it's vital that public officials always keep their ethical standards high.
Churchill said most of the people who come before her haven't had the advantages in life that Kwarsick has had.
"You've been blessed with your intelligence, your demeanor, your ability to get people to trust you," she said.
In addition, Churchill made it clear that Kwarsick shouldn't get leniency because of his position in the community.
"If I didn't act here, it would be because of the 'good old boys' system,'" she said.
Churchill threw out the plea bargain and instead sentenced Kwarsick to 15 days in jail. Arndt asked whether his client could serve the time as electronic home detention, but the judge refused. She did, however, agree to allow him to serve the sentence beginning Feb 4, which means he won't be spending Christmas in jail.
Afterward, Langley resident Carol Kerley, who attended the hearing to support Kwarsick, said many people were appalled by Judge Churchill's comments. She said it seemed unprofessional to suggest that Kwarsick was part of a "good old boys' club."
"Our trust wasn't broken," she said. "He's done so much for our town."Contact Whidbey News Times Assistant editor Jessie Stensland at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360.675.6611 ext. 5056.