Gold Bar, Wash., Broke and Divided, May Disappear From Map

A small, gold rush town in Washington may be disincorporated amid money woes.

July 13, 2012, 6:53 PM

July 14, 2012 — -- Gold Bar, Wash., got its name from miners who spotted traces of gold on a gravel bar in 1889. But more than 120 years after a gold rush ignited a prospecting boom there, the city's money woes may wipe it off the map.

Residents will likely vote in November on whether to raise property taxes or become an unincorporated part of Snohomish County. If they reject both options, the city will file for bankruptcy, Mayor Joe Beavers said.

While a weak economy has driven down tax revenue and state aid, officials said much of what ails the city's budget can be traced to a single person: attorney and activist blogger Anne Block, whose lawsuits, mostly over public records requests, have cost the city about $350,000 since 2009. Her actions have polarized the city of 2,000 into two factions that consider her either a champion of open government or a toxic liability.

On Block's website, the Gold Bar Reporter, the Massachusetts native routinely accuses city officials of corruption, at times using words like "evil" and "promiscuous." Her records requests have piled up so high that the city has had to hire a sixth employee to handle them while paying a private law firm to defend itself against Block's lawsuits, Beavers said.

This year, the cost of processing the requests and fighting several ongoing lawsuits may reach a sixth of the city's budget, or $90,000. The city, which has a general fund budget of about $550,000, can now only afford to plow its major arterial roadways.

"She has bombarded the city with requests to where there is no way we can physically keep up," Martin said. "The lawsuits keep getting thrown out, but it still costs money to defend ourselves."

According to Joan Amenn, a New York native who writes for the Gold Bar Reporter, the city is using Block as a scapegoat for its hardships, which are primarily the result of financial mismanagement.

Block's lawsuits, she added, are a self-inflicted wound.

"It never had to come to this," said Amenn, who along with another writer for the website, Susan Forbes, is a failed city council candidate. "The Public Records Act should not be a financial burden on anyone. To say it's costing all that money raises the question: What are you covering up?"

Councilwoman Elizabeth Lazella agreed. If the city had simply honored Block's requests, she said, it would not have found itself in court.

But the process of filling a public records request is not as simple as it might seem, Beavers said. The city could be held liable under Washington public disclosure law if it failed to provide even one email in a request that included thousands of documents. In addition to the cost of painstaking searches to ensure that no documents have been omitted, Beavers said the redacting of private information often requires the assistance of an attorney.

Beavers went to the state capital, Olympia, Wash., to testify at public hearings in support of modifying state law to prevent "aggressive" records requesters from driving up city expenses unreasonably. The effort largely failed.

Block said she purchased a gun after she received numerous threats of violence and had her door kicked in, but she refuses to drop her five ongoing lawsuits until all the emails she wants to see are turned over.

"I don't care if it takes me 20 or 30 years," she said in an interview she agreed to do only via Skype because she believes authorities are wiretapping her phone line. "They are not getting out of this."

To Carol McCraw, who has lived in Gold Bar for more than 30 years, it seems the city's problems boil down to personality. The population is largely fed up with the disputes, most of which originated under the city's previous mayor, and many residents, including herself, are resigned to the idea of ending the city's 102-year history.

But such resignation is dangerous, Martin said. Many residents may not realize it, she said, but disincorporation would mean the nullification of all local ordinances and the contract under which the county sheriff's office sends officers to patrol Gold Bar.

"Who's going to enforce our laws, an overstretched sheriff's office?" Martin asked. "It's not going to happen, and we'll have to wait a whole lot longer for police to show up if something horrible happens."

If Gold Bar pursues disincorporation, the change will likely be permanent.

Under Washington law, communities that wish to incorporate must have in place certain infrastructure, such as a sewer system, that Gold Bar will not be able to afford for the foreseeable future, Martin said. It would be the first disincorporation in the state since Westlake in Grant County disassembled in 1972.

This Tuesday, city council members will finalize the language on ballot measures calling for disincorporation and a tax hike, both of which Beavers expects to see on the ballot in November. If both are approved, the tax hike will override the disincorporation vote, and the city of Gold Bar will live to see another day.

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