Councilor Brian Munson was accused of hostile encounter with a park volunteer
BATTLE GROUND – Standing under the towering cedars inside the aptly-named Cedar Trails Park in Battle Ground’s Parkview Trails neighborhood, Jennifer Hamilton looks with dismay at numerous holes which have been dug, exposing the roots of the trees, all of which were there long before any of the houses that now surround them.
“This is going to destroy the cedar trees, gradually,” the gray-haired and bespectacled former dispatcher says, shaking her head.
Hamilton developed a love of the outdoors while studying botany at Washington State University, and found solace in the park, especially after her mother was diagnosed with cancer, then her husband’s mother, and then one of their dogs.
“2019 really sucked,” Hamilton says with a rueful chuckle.
Under the cedar trees, and along the seasonal creek that runs through the park, Hamilton says she would find some peace. Soon, she took to pulling out invasive plants that have begun to choke out the native species.
“I couldn’t do anything for (mom’s) cancer, but this was where I would come after a bad day at chemo or the days that she’s feeling terrible,” Hamilton says. “It felt so good to just rip something out by the roots and kill it.”
Eventually her constructive destruction caught the attention of Battle Ground Public Works, who asked if Hamilton would like to become the city’s first Adopt a Park volunteer. A sign at the north entrance to Cedar Trails Park designates that it is cared for by “The Hamilton Family.”
At least until June 1 of this year.
In a letter to Battle Ground City Manager Erin Erdman on June 2, Hamilton noted that she had found partially stripped bicycles, other trash, and graffiti along a fence that runs near a seasonal stream in the park.
“This year is even worse,” she wrote. “The kids have made trails in there and someone has dug a huge hole that I was told may have been used as a toilet by someone living there.”
Hamilton says she obtained permission from the city to remove the undergrowth along the stream, in hopes of discouraging further dumping or illegal activity in the park.
With the assistance of two teen boys, Hamilton began the task of clearing out the area. One of the boys took it upon himself to do some work alone, but told Hamilton that some other children had confronted him when he tried to clear out a makeshift bridge onto a seasonal island along the stream.
Hamilton says she arrived to find a middle-school-aged boy in a lawn chair on the island. When she asked him to leave so they could continue cleaning up the area, she says he responded that “you don’t own the park,” and “my dad is on the city council.”
His dad, she learned, is Battle Ground City Councilor Brian Munson, who also lives near the park.
Hamilton says she called Munson, who demanded to meet her at the park. When they showed up, she claims, there was no attempt to be civil.
“I tried to be nice and, you’re not supposed to shake hands, so I put my hand out and then I went, ‘oh,’” says Hamilton, pulling her hand back, “and they just started screaming at me right there about ‘you will not talk to my son, you will have nothing to do with my son,’ and just screaming.”
The encounter, Hamilton says, left her shaken, especially after Munson told his son and several of his friends to let him know if she ever spoke to them again.
Fearing possible retaliation, Hamilton said in her complaint that she was ending her work to restore the park. Her interview with Clark County Today last Thursday, she said, was the first time she’d set foot in the park since that day.
After hiring outside legal counsel to look into Hamilton’s complaint, Battle Ground Mayor Adrian Cortes crafted an apology letter, approved by all members of the council except for Munson, who said he was not involved in the closed door session where the complaint and the letter were discussed.
“We recognize it would be better to have received a personal apology from CM Munson,” the letter reads, in part. “However, we cannot force anyone to apologize, nor would an empty apology be productive. What we can do though is express our sincere apology and concern regarding this matter, and assure you that we find his conduct unacceptable.”
In an interview with Clark County Today, Munson declined to discuss details of his encounter with Hamilton, but noted repeatedly that he was there as a father, and not as a representative of the city.
“There’s really no more to state to that other than this was between a parent and a person,” said Munson.
In her complaint, Hamilton noted that Munson had claimed “four people” in the area had talked to him, complaining that Hamilton acted like she “owned the park.”
Hamilton says she can recall only one other time when she directly confronted some children who were digging a hole under the trees. In her story, the encounter became a “teachable moment,” and the children helped to fill in the holes.
Following Clark County Today’s original story on Hamilton’s complaint, a man named Joe Valtierra wrote a letter to Erdman, telling a much different version of the story.
“The incident Jennifer Hamilton refers to involved my 14-year-old son and his three friends, 13, 11 and 8 years of age,” Valtierra wrote. “During this incident Ms. Hamilton approached my son and the other boys and loudly scolded them for playing in that area. She loudly proclaimed that she was in charge of the park and they were not allowed to play in those areas any more.”
Valtierra claims Hamilton threatened to call the police and have the children arrested for vandalism.
“When I allowed them to read the article and comments made, the boys were concerned and frustrated that she portrayed those events in another way,” Valtierra wrote, “and that she did that to other children as well.”
Munson said he did not know Mr. Valtierra prior to seeing his letter, though he did contact him afterwards. Cortes and the attorney hired by the city apparently did not contact Valtierra to ask any further questions.
Hamilton disputes Valtierra’s version of the encounter.
“They had a shovel,” she says, responding to the claims that the hole was already there.
Hamilton says the kids helped to fill in the hole, and she believed they had ended the encounter on good terms.
“Maybe I was a little over passionate about protecting it,” she admits, before pointing to the holes. “Did you see this root damage? This has been my passion for two years now.”
Asked whether he might handle the encounter differently if he had it to do over again, Munson declined to answer directly.
“My four children, they come from a loving home,” he responded. “Whether they’re serving in the military, the scouts, playing sports, keeping high grades, I don’t regret for one moment my parenting skills. Do children sometimes make bad decisions? Yeah. But mine didn’t that day.”
Munson says that was borne out by Battle Ground Police, who deferred the incident to the Fire Marshal’s office based on a claim by Hamilton that Munson’s son had been trying to light a fire on the island. No charges were filed, and there is no open investigation by either agency.
At the city council meeting on Aug. 3, during which the councilors — minus Munson — agreed to send the apology letter to Hamilton, Munson attempted to interject with a public statement, but was shut down by Cortes.
“It’s a very dangerous situation that we have here,” said Munson later. “If a council can go in and have a meeting, make a discussion upon themselves, and then execute, if you will, the discipline or the charge, and I’m not given my day to speak my mind, we’ve entered a new realm that is very dangerous for our community.”
Cortes said Hamilton’s complaint was not reviewed by the Ethics Committee, since that body only looks into a complaint filed by one council member against another.
“In this case, the Council chose to send the letter to Mrs. Hamilton to acknowledge her complaint and to provide an apology for her interaction with Mr. Munson,” Cortes wrote. “No disciplinary action was taken against Mr. Munson.”
For his part, Munson seems to feel that, while no formal punishment or censure was levied by the council against him, the letter sent to Hamilton, which includes the line that “CM Munson’s hostile behavior is unacceptable and we collectively apologize for his actions,” represents a public form of punishment, and he was given no chance to respond in kind.
“It was acknowledged in (the complaint) that I was not there as a council member, but as a father,” Munson said. “If the council decided that that was inappropriate behavior on my part based off of her letter, then I wanted a public hearing, which was the due process, and I also wanted legal counsel, which I was entitled to. Both of those I was denied.”
Hamilton says she can understand Munson’s frustration with the process, but continues to worry his warning to the boys to let him know if she talks to them again makes it nearly impossible to continue caring for the park.
“Because it’s all part of building community,” she says. “You can’t build community without saying hello.”
Before leaving, Hamilton says she misses the trees, and the therapeutic feel of ripping an invasive plant out of the ground. She laments the new holes beneath the ancient trees, several of which have recently been spray painted with graffiti. Blackberry bushes, ivy, and chokeweed are once again thriving around the perimeters of the park.
In their letter, the council sought to reassure Hamilton that “we will not tolerate any retaliation by CM Munson,” adding that “we hope that you will continue your service on the City’s Parks and Community Engagement Advisory Board.”
Hamilton says her young helpers would likely return to assist her if she decides to resume maintaining the park, but the fact that it has grown worse in the two months since she stopped coming shows her there is a larger problem the community needs to tackle.
“Does anybody care?” she asks with a sigh. “How do we protect this if nobody but two 13 year old boys care?”