Buck’s closure a sad, complex bit of SK drama

The continuing saga of Buck’s A&W has drawn in the entire South Kitsap community since the popular restaurant’s legal troubles and pending closure were first chronicled by the Independent last Monday.

And even though, as of this Monday, Buck’s doors were still locked and its root beer had ceased flowing for the first time in 49 years, we’re still hopeful an agreement can be reached to reopen it.

After all, no one wins under the current arrangement.

Not Buck’s owners Rick and Karin Gehring, who now find themselves without their livelihood. Not the lawyers, whose fees in the sexual discrimination lawsuit that forced the closure can’t be fully paid if the company is liquidated. And certainly not the myriad worthy causes of South Kitsap, which Buck’s has tirelessly and generously supported for the past half century.

Given how much is at stake on all sides in this dispute, and considering the judgment is still under appeal and both sides have offered and turned down numerous settlement offers, one can’t help but feel it’s a little like a poker game in which the players are both all in and determined the other will be the first to blink.

But until or unless one of them does, the stalemate will continue and a community icon will be gone.

In the meantime, however, it probably wouldn’t hurt to take a step back and put the controversy in perspective.

As sad as the loss of Bucks’ would be, for example, and as tempting as it always is to point fingers, one can’t help feeling some of the scapegoating being done by many of those who have poured out their hearts in letters to the editor and e-mails in support of the Gehrings has been a little over the top.

Most of the anger, naturally, has been directed toward the lawyers who defended the two young women who won their sexual harassment lawsuit against Buck’s and its former manager, James Border.

And for the record, it bears noting they actually did prevail in the suit.

While the jury deciding the case did not determine the Gehrings were personally guilty of any wrongdoing, the fact that they were ordered to pay the plaintiffs’ legal fees suggests they weren’t completely exonerated, either — contrary to the insistence of many in the Gehrings’ legion of admirers.

To be precise, the jury in the case found Buck’s of Port Orchard Inc., the Gehrings’ company, guilty of sex discrimination, and awarded $75,000 to one of the plaintiffs and $35,000 to the other.

In a subsequent ruling, the court determined that amount was covered by the plaintiffs’ out-of-court settlement with Border, which meant Buck’s didn’t have to pay the money.

But again, that’s not the same thing as being cleared.

The kicker, as has been noted ad nauseum, is that soon-to-be-retired Superior Court Judge Leonard Costello followed that decision by concluding the Gehrings could also be hit with the tab for “reasonable” attorneys fees, which were calculated to be in the neighborhood of $650,000.

Adding on interest and the cost of more lawyering since that decision was handed down, the total bill now comes to around $750,000 — far more than the Gehrings can afford to pay, which explains why Buck’s A&W currently finds itself on the auction block, even as the judgment is being appealed.

And that’s a tremendous shame, both for the Gehrings and for the community of which they’ve been an integral part for generations.

But in our eagerness to wish the whole thing had never happened, it serves no one to misunderstand — or misrepresent — why it did.

On the continuum of guilt, the two female victims are clearly on one side of the scale, while Mr. Border, whose actions were indefensible, is on the other extreme.

The point is, the other principals — the Gehrings, the judge and the lawyers who may or may not have overcharged for their services — are somewhere in the middle, neither solely to blame nor as completely blameless as it might suit our version of events to believe.

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