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Mukai case continues, sent back to lower court

By NATALIE MARTIN

The legal battle over control of the Mukai house and garden will continue, as late last month a state appeals court considering the case sent it back to trial court.

In a Dec. 23 ruling, a three-judge Court of Appeals panel ruled that the Friends of Mukai, a group of island activists who attempted a takeover of the nonprofit Island Landmarks, did orchestrate their 2012 special meeting and election according to the organization’s bylaws, reversing a superior court decision from last year that sided with the organization’s original board.

However, the judges also ruled that other facts in the case are unclear, and therefore the superior court should not have granted a summary judgement — a ruling given when there are no facts in dispute — in favor of the original board.

The case will now be reconsidered in King County Superior Court, and the parties will have an opportunity to settle before a trial.

Though neither side prevailed in appeals court, Lynn Greiner, a Friends of Mukai board member and one of the group’s attorneys, characterized the decision as a positive step for the Vashon activists.

“I think it’s a big victory,” she said. “It was a unanimous decision by the court of appeals ... that we have a legitimate claim to move forward with here.”

The Vashon group has been in dispute with Island Landmarks, the nonprofit that holds the title to the historic Mukai farmhouse and garden and is headed by resident Mary Matthews, since 2012. Concerned over the declining state of the historic Mukai property and Matthews’ failure to open it regularly to the public, a slate of islanders quietly joined the organization in the spring of 2012 and ousted Matthews and her board in a special election, electing their own board to take its place.

When Matthews refused to give up control of Island Landmarks, the islanders sued for control, claiming the takeover was carried out according to the organization’s bylaws.

In the fall of the same year, however, a superior court judge ruled just the opposite, saying the special meeting wasn’t called correctly and that Matthews and her board maintained control of the organization and the property.

When the Friends group appealed, several state and local organizations joined the effort, filing a brief in the lawsuit that ultimately wasn’t accepted by the court but that expressed concern about the state of Mukai and argued the islanders should be granted control of the property.

In a 13-page decision written by Judge Ronald Cox following a November appeals court hearing, the appeals court ruled that the superior court’s interpretation of Island Landmark’s bylaws was incorrect and that the island activists did correctly call their special meeting.

However, Cox went on to write that it’s unclear, according to the bylaws and based on testimony by each party, whether those who voted at the meeting were rightful members of the organization at the time or whether notice of the meeting was truly sent to all members of the nonprofit as required.

Because those facts are in dispute, Cox wrote, the case should be reconsidered in superior court, where evidence could be presented and the case decided by a judge or jury.

“These conflicting arguments cannot be resolved on the record that is before us,” Cox wrote.

Matthews could not be reached for comment, but her group’s attorney, Bob Krinsky, said he and his clients are disappointed with the ruling and wish the case would have been resolved. They believed the lawsuit, which he has repeatedly called an attack on good people, was unfounded in the first place and they are displeased that they are essentially “back to square one,” he said.

“Basically this puts everybody back to if the suit were filed yesterday,” Krinsky said. “I’m sure everybody on both sides is a little happy and a little sad that we have to start over.”

A trial would be expensive for both sides, he noted. A court schedule that includes a potential trial date is expected to be set this month.

“I think it’s a horrible waste of resources for everyone, when it could have been simply resolved earlier on,” Krinsky said.

Both Krinsky and Greiner indicated that their sides would be willing to settle, but declined to comment on any current negotiations.

“I can’t talk about possible settlement inroads, but we’re certainly seeking some,” Krinsky said. “We’re hopeful these islanders can find a solution. We’ll have to wait and see.”

While a trial could become costly, Greiner said, it would also give the Friends of Mukai the opportunity to present a wider case for why they should be granted control of the Mukai property.

In the 2012 superior court case, the Vashon group moved to amend its complaint, asking the court to remove the original Mukai board under a state law that says the court may do so if the director engaged in fraudulent or dishonest conduct with respect to the organization or removal is in the best interest of the corporation.

The superior court judge didn’t consider the additional complaint, Greiner said, but it’s likely that another judge would and Matthews’ board would be required to provide evidence documenting the nonprofit’s ownership of the property, such as financial records and membership information. Members of each board would also be interviewed under oath as part of the discovery process.

“We know what we think is going on, but we’ll be able to get from them now their records,” Greiner said. “The summary judgement was just very narrowly focused on the bylaws and the process for the meeting, not on the reason for the meeting, which was the bigger issue.”

Glenda Pearson, another islander instrumental in the Friends of Mukai, said she, too, thought it would be valuable to present a wider picture in court, rather than focusing on the meeting in 2012.

“The trial would allow us for the first time to really present all the information we have about why we thought the old board, the Matthews group, should no longer be in control of Island Landmarks,” Pearson said.

“It’s the last thing we would like to do because we’re sick of all the legal stuff,” she added. “But to have the opportunity to do it, we welcome that.”

Meanwhile, the Friends of Mukai, which now has more than 70 members, continues to hold programs related to the Mukai site, considered one of the most historically significant Japanese-American properties in the country, despite not having physical access to it.

In August two guest speakers visited the island for an event, and a Jan. 22 event will focus on Japanese gardens, with two experts coming to speak, and GPS information gathered about the Mukai garden will be presented.

Pearson said that despite the legal battle, the group wants to continue trying to educate locals about the significance of the Mukai property and the story behind it. She said the Friends group holds an educational event every few months.

“We’re such a white community, but built on a diverse background, which I think we need to appreciate and know more about,” she said.

Allyson Brooks, a top official from the state Department of Archeology and Historic Preservation (DAHP) who last year voiced concern about Island Landmarks’ management of the property the state helped purchase, said her department hasn’t taken any action since sending a strongly worded letter last winter, but it has followed the court case.

While the state doesn’t take a position on lawsuits such as this, Brooks said, her department did join a motion by the Friends group to halt a potential sale of the property by Island Landmarks to an unidentified buyer. The motion was set aside when Nelson Happy, Matthews’ husband and an attorney who argued for the group in court, said that Island Landmarks would not sell until the court case was resolved.

“Our position is we want the owner to follow the … standards for historic preservation, open the house to the public and perform as the state originally intended when they gave $150,000 to buy the property,” Brooks said.

“We’re neutral on that,” she said when asked about the lawsuit. “Our concern is for the property. We’re not happy with the current situation.”

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