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Tuesday, January 18, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Water commissioner in hot water over district residency

Seattle Times Eastside bureau

WOODINVILLE

Following four unsuccessful bids for state and local office, Walter Backstrom finally got elected in 1997 to the Woodinville Water District board.

But now his fellow commissioners are trying to pull the plug on his fledgling political career because they suspect he doesn't live within the district's boundaries.

They threatened to hire a private detective to tail Backstrom to find out where he spends his nights, and they voted Jan. 4 to curtail his out-of-state travel.

In November, in an unrelated quarrel, Backstrom says a commissioner bumped him back in his chair as he attempted to stand up.

Backstrom pressed an assault charge against Commissioner Gail Harrell, who denied she ever touched him. The matter has been forwarded to King County prosecutors.

Backstrom, 48, insists he lives in the district and believes the board is retaliating against him because he is black and because he raised conflict-of-interest complaints against another commissioner and the district's attorney. The complaint against the commissioner was dismissed by the state auditor late last year, and a grievance against the lawyer is pending before the state Bar Association.

"I'm a black conservative in an all-white suburb," Backstrom said. "My fellow commissioners don't like me because I don't play `Yahtzee' with them on weekends."

Backstrom conceded that he has a "lightning-rod personality" and that some people find him abrasive.

"But I've had to fear for my life living out here when all I wanted to do was run for office," Backstrom said, pointing to racist mail circulated when he ran unsuccessfully for the Bothell City Council in 1992.

His fellow commissioners say Backstrom's allegations of racial discrimination are absurd and resent that he even suggested it. But they do want to know whether he lives in the district, which is a requirement to hold office.

The charges and countercharges have been out of the public eye mainly because few people ever attend board meetings. The district is the fifth-largest in King County, with 11,800 water and 2,500 sewer customers.

But Backstrom says the public should know what's going on. He also said there was a racial slur made against him last year. The district spent $7,000 investigating the allegation against a district staffer but found no evidence to support the claim, according to the district's lawyer, Michael Ruark.

Bob Bandarra, the district's general manager, said the issue of Backstrom's residency arose when at least two residents complained that Backstrom no longer lived in the district. An anonymous letter later slipped into a commissioner's mailbox claimed the same thing, Bandarra said.

In November, officials asked Backstrom to provide a rental agreement or financial documents to prove he lives in the district. He refused.

When asked again, he provided a post-office box and an address, which didn't check out. He subsequently corrected the address, saying he'd moved a number of times in the past few years and made a mistake in giving his address.

Backstrom said he married 15 months ago and splits his time between his wife's Seattle home and a house he shares with a roommate in Woodinville.

According to Backstrom, his permanent address is in Woodinville, where he and his wife hope to buy a house.

Julie Anne Kempf, acting superintendent of King County Records and Elections, said it's OK for someone to claim a permanent address in one jurisdiction even if most of the time is spent at a residence outside the jurisdiction.

But attorney Ruark disagrees. He to file a complaint this month challenging Backstrom's residency on behalf of the water district.

The dispute over Backstrom's residency is only part of the turmoil.

At the Jan. 4 board meeting, Commissioner Harrell, who is one-eighth Native American, jokingly said, "I just want to warn you I'll be coming (to the board's retreat) in my tribal war paint."

Backstrom later said if he had made a similar comment, his fellow commissioners would have "been all over me. But Gail said it, and they all just let it go."

During the same meeting, Backstrom called Commissioner Ken Goodwin "homes," slang for "buddy," Backstrom said.

"What did you call me?" Goodwin immediately demanded, apparently offended by the term. "You can call me Commissioner Goodwin."

The exchange was mild compared with an argument between Backstrom and Harrell in November. A staffer was setting up the district's Web page, including commissioners' photos. Backstrom said he jokingly told the staffer "to lighten me up so I can look like all the white people."

The staffer laughed, according to Backstrom. But Harrell became angry and demanded an apology, saying Backstrom's comment was racially insensitive, according to Bandarra, the general manager.

"Saying `white people' isn't a racial slur - it's a descriptive term," Backstrom said. He denied being a racist and pointed out both his grandfather and his wife are white.

"Gail (Harrell) got in my face, demanding an apology, and she wouldn't let me get out of my chair. When I tried to get up, she bumped me back down," Backstrom said.

Harrell denied the incident occurred. "I have never touched him," she said. "I don't know what he's talking about. I don't even know what he said."

Nevertheless, a King County sheriff's detective forwarded information on the incident to county prosecutors, who will decide whether to pursue the matter.

At a retreat later this month, a consultant will be brought in to try to reduce any racial tension on the board.

"Racial sensitivity needs to go both ways," Bandarra said. "Anything referring to race is not appropriate, whether it's people making comments about Walter's race or comments from Walter about white people."

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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