The Snohomish County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office said it won’t charge Edmonds City Council President Steve Bernheim with a crime for removing one “No Dogs Allowed” sign and spray painting another along Sunset Avenue Oct. 30. “While Bernheim has overstepped his authority, I don’t believe that a jury of his peers would convict him of either crime based on this conduct,” wrote county prosecutor Joan Cavagnaro.
In a press release issued the morning of Oct. 30, Bernheim had invited the media to a “sign removal ceremony” on the west side of Sunset Avenue overlooking Puget Sound. Bernheim said that he was taking matters into his own hands because the council had voted April 20 to allow dogs into the park yet the signs remained, confusing the public. However, at a City Council meeting the following Tuesday, Nov. 1, the council officially approved the ordinance to allow the sign removal, and Councilmember D.J. Wilson criticized Bernheim for removing the signs prematurely, which prompted a citizen complaint and resulting police investigation.
My Edmonds News was the only news organization to cover the “sign removal ceremony,” and when we arrived Bernheim was walking his dog, Rolf, along the dirt pathway, carrying one of the “No Dogs Allowed” signs in a shopping bag, and expressing his frustration that it had taken so long for the city to remove the signs so that people could feel comfortable taking their dogs there. In the case of one sign that he didn’t have the proper tools to remove, Bernheim spray painted over the word “No” so that that sign read “Dogs in the Park.
After My Edmonds News left the event, Edmonds police received a call from a nearby resident reporting that a man was removing signs from the area. According to the written police report, the Edmonds police officer dispatched to the scene, Stephen Morrison, approached Bernheim and told him that police had been told that he “was possibly stealing street signs.”
“Bernheim immediately said that he was not,” Officer Morrison said. “I then pointed to the obvious metal street sign that was in his canvas bag, and asked him what that was,” Morrison wrote. “Bernheim said that he had found it ‘over there’ and then pointed me in the general direction of where the sign was missing from.”
“I then told Bernheim that was a city-owned street sign in his bag. Bernheim then informed me it was not. I then corrected him and said that it was.” Morrison said he removed the brown metal sign from the bag and showed it to Bernheim, noting that it was similar to the informational signs that are posted in throughout City of Edmonds parks. After discussing the matter further with Bernheim, Morrison said he placed the sign in the trunk of his patrol car and it was later booked into evidence at the police department.
Officer Morrison noted that the resident who originally called police to report the sign matter was contacted after the incident and said he didn’t actually see anyone removing the signs, but assumed that Bernheim removed it since he “was standing next to the post where the sign used to be and then saw it in his bag.”
Wilson said during the Nov. 1 council meeting that Bernheim’s sign removal was “a violation of the law as it existed,” since it occurred before Nov. 1, when the council officially approved the ordinance allowing dogs on the park pathway. In addition, Wilson noted during the meeting that Bernheim’s actions placed the Edmonds police chief in the uncomfortable position of deciding whether to refer a case involving the Edmonds City Council President to the Snohomish County Prosecutor. (Cavagnaro said in her report that police referred the case to her office “because it would create an appearance of conflict of interest for the city prosecutor to make a charging decision.”)
In the written decision not to file charges, Cavagnaro noted that to prove an allegation of theft, the city “would have to prove that Bernheim intended to deprive the city of the signs.”
“There is insufficient evidence of what Bernheim intended to do with the signs,” she wrote. “We cannot establish that he was not going to return it to the city’s sign shop.”
Regarding the spray painting, Cavagnaro also declined to file a charge of malicious mischief, which would require proving that Bernheim “damaged the signs with evil intent.”
“We have circumstantial evidence that Bernheim is the one who damaged the sign, but no admission by him and no witness to it,” Cavagnaro said. “Either he truly thought that he was correcting the sign to comport with the new code,” or he was “acting out of frustration” that city staff “were not executing the Council’s directive fast enough,” she added.
Following Wilson’ public criticism, Bernheim made his own statement to the council and the audience, insisting that the council actually approved the action to legalize leashed dogs on the west side of Sunset in April. He described the minutes as “the biggest bunch of baloney I’ve ever read coming out of this town. I think it’s legally false. We voted to open this up in April.”
“I’ve simply removed the signs,” Bernheim said. “I’ve done nothing wrong and I’m proud of everything I’ve done here.”
When contacted Monday morning about the police report and the prosecuting attorney’s decision not to file charges, Bernheim said he hadn’t seen either the report or the decision and wasn’t going to comment on them. “I still believe, as the city attorney said, that bringing the matter back for the consent agenda ‘fell through the cracks’ in his office,” Bernheim said, referring to an email that City Attorney Scott Snyder had sent to Bernheim in late October regarding the delay in preparing an ordinance for the council’s approval.
“I did apologize to Steve for not alerting him that staff (former City Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services Director Brian McIntosh) had decided to combine park leash issues and that the revision that I had drafted immediately after the meeting would be delayed until that package came back to council,” Snyder said in an email Monday.
The “package” refers to four city parks — the Sunset Avenue overlook, plus Hickman, Haines Wharf and Hutt — that the council voted Nov. 1 to open up to dogs on leashes, and the opinion by staff that it would be more practical to remove the signs from all parks at the same time.
Bernheim called it “ridiculous” that it took the city so long to implement the council’s wishes for the Sunset Avenue overlook, and added that he would expect the mayor and the city attorney “to act more promptly to put into law acts of the city council, particularly in matters that are far more important than dogs.”