Langley residents will begin the new year in suspense as they wait to find out if they still have a mayor.
The jail-bound Larry Kwarsick, who one year ago was proudly being sworn in to his first term as mayor, has less than 20 days to respond to a lawsuit filed by Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks aimed at kicking Kwarsick out of office.
Kwarsick pleaded guilty Dec. 17 in Island County Superior Court to a gross misdemeanor of “falsifying a city record.” The plea agreement called only for a monetary fine and for his resignation from office, but Judge Vickie Churchill, angered that Kwarsick would “betray the public confidence,” gave him 15 days in jail, beginning Feb. 4.
There has been some confusion over the basis for Banks’ lawsuit, he admitted in an email to the Record last week.
“The bottom line here is that I didn’t bring the lawsuit to enforce the terms of the plea bargain,” the prosecutor wrote. “That agreement has been fully satisfied. I brought the lawsuit because the law requires him to step down. Upon my review of the statutes, it appears that I’m the public official who is expected to do something about it.”
The lawsuit cites a state law that a person convicted of “malfeasance” in office must be “forever barred from holding public office.”
When he enters the jail cell, Kwarsick will either be another former Langley mayor or fighting a legal battle to keep his job.
Even Kwarsick isn’t sure what he will decide.
“To me it’s a complex feeling,” he said. “I’ve helped Langley get off in the right direction.”
At times Kwarsick sounded like a man dictating his own obituary, citing highlights of his tenure. He and his staff recently made a list of all their accomplishments during his first year, and another list of goals for next year.
At others times, Kwarsick appears feisty; that there’s more to his story than has been told, and more to the law than what prosecutor Banks cited in his lawsuit filed Dec. 21, shortly after Kwarsick announced he intended to remain as Langley’s mayor.
“You have to look at the whole body of law, and the weight of the law may be on my side,” Kwarsick responded. He said another mayor of a small town in this state kept his job after being found guilty of impersonating a police officer.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty, but I’ve just had nine months of uncertainty,” he said. That’s how long it took the whistleblower’s complaint to make its way through the city council, to the prosecutor’s office and then to court.
Continuing the fight would be costly. Kwarsick said he presently is not represented by an attorney. “I’ll be paying for my own defense plus the costs my wife and I have procured over nine months,” he said.
Kwarsick expressed disappointment that neither Banks nor anyone from his office talked to him before filling the criminal charge. “I regret I’ve never been able to tell my story. It never has been told,” he said.
He notes with gallows humor the fate that awaits him in only a few weeks. “I’ll be in a jail I renovated a few years ago,” he said. “I’ll get to see what kind of job I did.” Kwarsick is a retired county employee who worked his way up to director of planning and development.
Right now, he apparently is still mayor of Langley part-time while running his own consulting firm and working part-time as Coupeville’s planner. Coupeville officials are deciding if they can keep Kwarsick in light of Banks’ opinion that he can’t hold a public position.
So, why not tell his full story now?
“I signed plea agreement and I have to stay within the agreement,” Kwarsick said. “But there are parts of the story only I know.”
He pleaded guilty to something he did before he was mayor, when he was Langley’s planning director in 2011. He signed a plea stating he backdated a document related to his stepdaughter’s home to make it look like his predecessor wrote it, then filed it with the city, changing some environmental conditions for the new home, built near a wetland.
The Sheriff’s Office used its own computer forensics expert to investigate Kwarsick’s actions, examining the hard drives on both his home computer and city computer. Both were used in the process of changing the document.
Kwarsick scoffs at that angle of the investigation. “Working at home — they make it sound sinister,” he said. “But they had to build a case.”
Kwarsick denies changing the controversial permit or that he treated a relative’s project differently than anyone else’s. “Absolutely not, they’re all treated the same,” he said. “I didn’t change any conditions — that’s my opinion.”
The Langley City Council is also waiting for Kwarsick’s decision. At first, the majority of the council supported his effort to remain as mayor, but that support melted away when Banks announced the lawsuit.
“I haven’t talked to any of the council members,” Kwarsick said, adding that whatever opinion individual council members may have “is not a concern.”
Hal Seligson, who heads the council as mayor pro-tem, said Thursday all five council members now agree Kwarsick should no long be mayor, and they may not even need his resignation.
“I also think he has forfeited his office having been convicted of malfeasance,” Seligson said, raising the possibility that if Kwarsick doesn’t resign, the council could try to oust him.
“I’m not a lawyer,” Seligson added. “I don’t know if the council has any authority to do that.”
It was present city planner Jeff Arango who blew the whistle on Kwarsick’s misdeed. Kwarsick tried to put some rumors to rest that Arango may be fired. He admits to doing a performance review with Arango, as he did with all four department heads, but he wouldn’t reveal any details. “It’s between me and the employee,” he said. He responded to another question by saying, “I hope he (Arango) is still here in a year.”
Arango has asked the council to stop Kwarsick from taking retribution against him. A special executive session will be held to discuss the request, perhaps today. Arango did not return a phone call to the Record.
Kwarsick isn’t by nature an attention grabber, and he’s clearly uncomfortable by all the media coverage his case has sparked. “I was on television in San Francisco,” he said with disbelief.
Kwarsick admits he made a mistake, although he won’t say exactly what it was, and adds that he feels “courageous” for having stood up in court and admitted it.
“I made a mistake and I’m able to bear the consequences,” he said.
Whether he can bear to give up his job without a long, expensive fight remains to be seen.