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Diking District 1 faces another lawsuit on project

Commissioners of Diking District 1 have been hit with another lawsuit in Island County Superior Court over the district’s controversial pump project.

Unlike the first lawsuit, however, the new one only targets diking district commissioners Steve Arnold and Ray Gabelein. It also includes Island County Treasurer Linda Riffe.

Riffe was also named in the earlier lawsuit, filed in early October by Citizens in Support of Useless Bay Community against the diking district, Island County, and Island County Assessor Dave Mattens and County Auditor Sheila Crider.

Elizabeth Derrig, a Mukilteo lawyer, and five other property owners in the diking district filed the new suit late in October.

The lawsuit claims diking district commissioners acted illegally when they approved the new drainage pump and tried to collect money from property owners to pay for the project. It further alleges that commissioners did not tell property owners about diking district elections, and that diking district officials have allowed the pumping of thousands of gallons of water containing “highly toxic pollutants” into Puget Sound.

The lawsuit also asks for the removal of Arnold and Gabelein from the three-member board of commissioners for “breach of duty.”

Riffe and Gabelein declined to talk about the new lawsuit, filed on Oct. 30.

“We’ve been advised by the district’s lawyer not to comment on the suits,” Gabelein said Friday.

Asked if he and Arnold will be represented in the latest lawsuit by the district’s attorney, or if they will be required to hire their own lawyers, Gabelein said “no comment.”

Arnold, chairman of the diking district, also said he could not speak about the pending litigation.

“I can’t really comment. The facts will come out eventually,” Arnold said.

If Gabelein and Arnold are represented by the district’s counsel, it would mean those bringing the latest suit would be paying legal fees on both ends, since they are tax-paying property owners in the district.

Derrig said residents of the district have been shut out of diking district elections and meetings.

“Not once in his claimed 14 years on the diking commission board has Chairman Arnold notified people they have a right to vote for diking commissioners or even that there is an open position,” Derrig said.

“Neither he nor Mr. Gabelein has ever been put to a vote of the people,” she continued. “As the sole applicant for a position each has secretly become ‘elected’ because no one else knew to run and therefore, as there was only one candidate, there was no actual election.”

The first lawsuit against Diking District 1 claims that property owners within the district who stood to benefit the most from the district’s controversial pump project were not getting assessed to help pay for it.

Derrig said she was not affiliated with that lawsuit, but said she agreed with the mission of the Citizens in Support of Useless Bay Community.

She added that she hoped the district and county officials named in the most recent lawsuit would end up personally paying for the court case.

“I am seeking the court to order that the defendants individually be personally responsible for damages and the plaintiff’s expense of having to bring suit,” Derrig said.

“Significant amounts of diking district funds had already been spent by diking commissioners on attorney’s fees and for personal benefit,” she added.

The controversy in Diking District 1 began early last year after diking commissioners ordered a new $430,000 pump to deal with stormwater in the district, which spans 743 acres and includes the neighborhoods of Sunlight Beach, Olympic View and Sun Vista and Useless Bay Golf & Country Club.

The new pump was installed last Christmas Eve, but only those property owners who were expected to benefit from the project — the owners of approximately 460 acres — received special assessments to pay for it.

Members of Citizens in Support of Useless Bay Community, or CSUBC, have repeatedly said ever since that the assessments for the pump project are inequitable, and that the project wasn’t property advertised and may not be needed.

Derrig said she filed the lawsuit after diking commissioners held another “secret” meeting on Oct. 21.

Members of CSUBC, however, attended the Oct. 21 meeting, where diking district commissioners decided to get legal help to defend against the CSUBC lawsuit and also approved a new assessment roll.

The new lawsuit doesn’t name diking district commissioner John Shepard, a critic of the pump project and the husband of CSUBC director Coyla Shepard.

John Shepard signed a declaration in support of the new lawsuit, according to court records, and he repeats claims made by others that residents were not told about diking district elections or the pump project.

Meanwhile, Shepard’s seat on the board is up for election in February.

Shepard has said he will seek another six-year term on the diking commission.

Those interested must file at the Island County Auditor’s office, 400 N. Main St., Coupeville.

The filling period for Position 2 will be the week of Monday, Dec. 14 through Friday, Dec. 18, and the election will be Feb. 2.

Record writer Roy Jacobson contributed to this report.

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