Clyde Hill Site Of Legal Battlefield

CLYDE HILL - More than a dozen citizens of Clyde Hill, the small town with the big legal bills, will soon be marking their calendars for an upcoming event: ``Being deposed today.''

The depositions are to gather testimony in a $2.8 million lawsuit in federal court against the town, charging civil-rights violations, and a countersuit by the town's former mayor charging defamation and outrageous conduct.

The $2.8 million sought in damages is more than twice Clyde Hill's 1990 budget of $1.26 million.

And it all stems from criminal charges of ``injury to trees'' filed in Bellevue District Court more than two years ago. The town filed the criminal charges against a developer who cut trees in dedicated town right of way, then lost the case when the judge dismissed it. The developer then filed a civil suit against the town, the former mayor and town administrator, who have recently filed a counter-suit.

Among those being summoned are several former town-council members, a police officer, a Seattle District Court judge (formerly the town attorney) and several town residents.

``It really is very unfortunate,'' said John Horsfall, a town councilman for 19 years who is scheduled to give his deposition next Tuesday. ``Lawyers are the only ones making money on this.''

The litigants in the original civil suit are Bob and Judy Ward, Issaquah developers, who are suing Clyde Hill, former Mayor Dwayne Richards and former town administrator Alice Carlsen. The Wards allege the city and officials violated their rights to equal protection and due process by prosecuting them for cutting trees while improving a residential lot.

Neither Richards nor Carlsen would comment on the lawsuit. But the two former officials, who both resigned, recently filed a countersuit claiming the Wards, in concert with unnamed co-conspirators who were members of the Clyde Hill Citizens League, harassed them and accused them of lying, cheating and fraud even though they knew the charges were untrue.

In the process, the Wards wrecked Carlsen's career, the countersuit says.

``I'm being sued for a million dollars,'' Bob Ward said. ``I have no comment. None. It's nothing but a big, big headache.''

A further indication of how the battle has divided Clyde Hill is that one of the unnamed co-conspirators in the countersuit is now a town council member, who backs the Wards' suit against the town. John DiLoreto said he's expecting to be subpoenaed soon.

Before joining the council, DiLoreto was active in the Clyde Hill Citizens League, formed by a group of disgruntled citizens opposed to tax increases and to what they perceived as inequities in the way the town handled land-use matters. DiLoreto first got involved because of a zoning dispute.

The league soon championed the causes of two people the town was warring with over trees.

The first case, which the town won last year, went all the way to the state Supreme Court and centered on criminal prosecution of a man who refused to trim his trees, in violation of the town's ``living fence'' law.

The town wasn't so lucky with the Wards. Bob Ward was prosecuted for chopping down eight or nine trees in a right of way the town had in front of Ward's lot, where he was building a $500,000 house. The trees were particularly important, the town argued, because the right of way was a planned entrance to the town park.

Ward said the town and Richards singled him out for prosecution and mistreatment, including allowing him to talk to town officials only in the presence of the police chief, and blocking work on the house by cordoning off the area (to preserve evidence) and delaying permits.

Judge Brian Gain found Ward guilty of cutting the trees but then dismissed the whole case, saying the town's prosecution had been arbitrary, violating Ward's right to equal protection under the law.

The town responded that Gain had overstepped his authority but offered not to appeal if Ward would agree not to file a civil suit. Ward wouldn't agree, and the town appealed but lost again in Superior Court.

Richards claims in his countersuit that the Wards and members of the citizens league wrongly accused him of using town staff to do yard work at his house and even of arson in a small fire at the house built by the Wards. The arson investigation remains open.

Public officials generally have limited protection against charges by citizens, but Richards also is alleging malice, by claiming the Wards and co-conspirators knew their charges were unfounded.

``If malice can be shown, even a public official can sue somebody and can take it to the jury,'' said Bill Helsell, attorney for Richards.

The ``outrageous-conduct'' portion of the countersuit doesn't depend on a finding of malice, but a jury would have to find the behavior something ``so repugnant in a civilized society that it should not be allowed,'' Helsell said.

Jack Quinan, former president of the Citizen's League, said he's ``not losing any sleep'' over the countersuit.

And although Quinan opposes higher taxes, he hopes Ward wins a judgment against the town.

``It'd take $1,000 apiece from 1,000 households,'' he said. ``But my sense is . . . that's our tough luck.''