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Island County Prosecutor Banks sues to force Langley Mayor Kwarsick’s resignation | UPDATE

Langley Mayor Larry Kwarsick listens as City Councilman Jim Sundberg, right, stands and asks the judge for a light sentence. Sitting behind Kwarsick just over his right shoulder is Councilwoman Rene Neff. At left is his attorney Charles Arndt. Kwarsick will spend 15 days in jail in February.  - Justin Burnett/Whidbey News-Times
Langley Mayor Larry Kwarsick listens as City Councilman Jim Sundberg, right, stands and asks the judge for a light sentence. Sitting behind Kwarsick just over his right shoulder is Councilwoman Rene Neff. At left is his attorney Charles Arndt. Kwarsick will spend 15 days in jail in February.
— image credit: Justin Burnett/Whidbey News-Times

Langley Mayor Larry Kwarsick announced Thursday morning he plans to keep his position despite entering a guilty plea Monday to a gross misdemeanor that resulted in a 15-day jail sentence starting in February.

Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks reacted quickly and moved to force Kwarsick to step down. He announced Thursday afternoon that he would file a lawsuit against Kwarsick on Friday, claiming he failed to step down from two public offices: as mayor of Langley as well as Coupeville’s part-time town planner.

Kwarsick left town before a Langley City Council meeting Tuesday evening for a family vacation. The five council members and most of the large crowd in attendance seemed to support retaining him as mayor regardless of his legal troubles.

A South Whidbey Record email inquiry to Kwarsick the next day resulted in a short reply Thursday morning.

“I am humbled by the support I have received from people in the community, the staff at city hall, and the council,” Kwarsick wrote. “I plan to continue to serve the city of Langley as mayor.”

Banks, speaking by phone late Thursday, said, “I am disappointed in the mayor and the council. The council is saying they believe it’s OK (to break the law) if he’s popular.”

In fact, Banks said, Kwarsick admitted to a gross misdemeanor regarding a city permit, the conditions of which he changed to benefit a relative.

The prosecutor wrote in a statement, “Today I initiated Quo Warranto proceeding in Superior Court to enforce Washington’s law that requires a person convicted of malfeasance in office to forfeit public office and be forever barred from holding public office.”

Kwarsick pleaded guilty to one charge of “falsifying a city record” in Island County Superior Court. A plea agreement worked out by Kwarsick’s attorney Charles Arndt and Banks called for 364 days in jail suspended (meaning no jail time), a $2,500 fine and Kwarsick’s resignation from office.

However, an angry Judge Vickie Churchill unexpectedly added 15 days in jail, saying the mayor violated the public trust. But Banks said that didn’t change the rest of the agreement.

“The unmistakable understanding was that Mr. Kwarsick would comply with the law and resign from his public offices,” Banks wrote in his statement. “He should have resigned immediately after the plea. It has been three days, and he has not resigned. He is no longer eligible to hold either post.”

Banks said that once served with the lawsuit papers, Kwarsick will have 20 days to respond.

Can Kwarsick serve as mayor until the lawsuit is settled?

“I don’t think he can lawfully,” Banks told the Record. “But I can’t go down there and put locks on the doors.”

The City Council met a day after Kwarsick admitted to a crime and was sentenced. Mayor pro-tem Hal Seligson called the meeting to gauge the feelings of the council and public about Kwarsick’s situation. He left no doubt who was still in charge.

“Larry Kwarsick until such time as he should step down is the mayor,” he said. He later explained that didn’t mean he though the mayor should not resign.

It appeared to be mostly a meeting of Larry Kwarsick’s friends, as those urging him to remain as mayor drew applause and those who took verbal shots at the judge who sentenced him to jail were supported by clapping and scattered cheers.

Councilwoman Rene Neff said, “He hopes he can remain mayor.”

Banks’ belief that Kwarsick would immediately have to step down as mayor was questioned Tuesday night by Langley City Attorney Mike Kenyon. He said the law is fairly clear that a public official who commits a felony must leave his job, but not so with lesser crimes, such as gross misdemeanors. “There’s no statute that mentions a misdemeanor shall forfeit office,” Kenyon said.

He noted Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn admitted to driving while intoxicated. He not only kept his job but was reelected last fall.

“Should the mayor stay?” the city attorney rhetorically asked the crowd of some 40 people stuffed into the tiny council chambers, with others listening from outside an open door. “It’s not my job to say that either way … but there’s no challenge in court right now to have him removed from office.”

Banks filed the challenge on Friday.

An audience member asked about a recall election, but Kenyon said that applies to “malfeasance while in office.” Kwarsick’s offense, he said, “occurred before Larry was mayor.”

As the city planner, Kwarsick doctored a relative’s permit to ease environmental oversight of a home built near a wetland, then backdated it to make it appear a predecessor wrote it and replaced it in city files.

While admitting the issue isn’t entirely clear, the attorney said Kwarsick may remain as mayor until “a court says no.”

Kwarsick’s crime was uncovered by a blogger, Skip Demuth, with help from local environmentalist Marianne Edain. City planner Jeff Arango filed a whisteblower complaint to notify the council of the deed, and after mulling over the situation the council asked the prosecutor’s office to decide if a crime had been committed.

Tuesday night, Councilwoman Neff read a long statement defending Kwarsick. Although he changed an official document, “very little harm was done by Larry,” she said. “It was not a permit; the house was already built. It simply ‘collapsed’ the wetland mitigation process ‘to one year, not seven.’”

“I have no idea what was going through Larry’s mind when he chose to alter this document. I do believe he was doing what he stated, ‘just getting it finished up.’”

Neff cited a list of Kwarsick’s accomplishments that she believes outweigh his crime.

Kwarsick supporter Carol Kerly said the situation was “blown completely out of proportion,” and commended Kwarsick.

“His passion and what he wants to see happen to this little town is contagious,” she said, prompting applause.

Several speakers lauded the progress Kwarsick has made after one year in office, including upcoming Second Street improvements and work on the marina expansion and associated projects, while others said he deserves a second chance.

“It’s not like we’re all clean here,” said Councilman Bruce Allen, striking an almost religious tone. “It’s just that Larry’s was a public one.”

Allen tore into Judge Churchill, saying he and other council members who attended Monday’s sentencing spent two hours watching the judge deal with a variety of convicted criminals, from domestic abusers to drug violators.

“She was very compassionate, and then it was Larry’s turn and her demeanor changed completely,” he said. “You could see there was a bias in there. Is there anything we can do?”

A woman in the crowd added, “The judge, I think, was horrid.”

Allen retorted, “I don’t think it was a fair trial.”

But by as the end of the week neared, Kwarsick’s support among council members was getting shaky. Councilman Jim Sundberg, who spoke in court Monday asking for a lighter sentence for Kwarsick, changed his tune in a call to the Record Thursday afternoon.

“My position is I’ve reread the RCWs and ordinances and he can not remain as mayor,” Sundberg said.

Hal Seligson, the mayor pro-tem, clarified his position Friday, saying “he should have resigned; I actually expected he would resign.” He said he was more vague Tuesday because “I admire him as a person,” and he thought Kwarsick would decide to resign after his brief vacation.

Seligson replied in the affirmative when asked if he thought a majority of the council would now recommend that Kwarsick resign.

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