January 2019 Bar Bulletin
By Karen Sutherland
In October, Greg Rubstello received the Washington State Association of Municipal Attorneys (WSAMA) Ernest H. Campbell Award for Excellence in the Practice of Municipal Law. This is WSAMA’s lifetime achievement award, meant to recognize a significant contribution in the field of municipal law over a long period of time.
Rubstello passed the Washington bar exam in 1975 after graduating from Loyola University School of Law in New Orleans. Going to New Orleans for law school was a great adventure for Rubstello, a Seattle native. After being licensed, Rubstello decided to live in a rural community and initially represented farmers in Othello, in a two-lawyer general practice.
His career as a municipal lawyer began in 1978 when he ran for city attorney against an incumbent who had been in the position for about 20 years. Rubstello was in the middle of a trial in Franklin County when he heard on the radio that he lost the election by a huge margin, but he knew something was wrong because the announced vote totals sounded wrong.
During the trial that afternoon, he received a note with a smiley face on it from the clerk saying he won. The radio station’s numbers had been wrong, and the incumbent had to be told in the middle of his victory party while cutting the cake that he had lost.
Near the end of his term as Othello city attorney, Rubstello became the in-house city attorney for the City of Pasco. He first became involved in employment and labor law when the Pasco city manager asked him to handle a labor issue. “I wanted to get out of doing criminal prosecution and I told the city manager that if he would hire an assistant to do criminal work, I would do labor law,” Rubstello said. One memorable case from his time as the Pasco city attorney is Pasco Police Officers’ Association v. City of Pasco,1 which established management rights as a proper subject of bargaining that could be bargained to impasse.
Rubstello’s Pasco practice included other areas of municipal law in addition to labor and employment law. For example, one of his land use cases lasted more than a decade. It involved the Pasco-Kennewick truss bridge, which spanned the Columbia River. A new bridge was built, and the plan was to take the old bridge down.
Preservationists sued the city, the state and the federal government, arguing that the preservation laws had not been followed. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found that the secretary of Transportation acted arbitrarily in concluding there were no feasible and prudent alternatives to removing the old bridge and remanded the case to District Court to in turn remand the matter to the secretary for a comprehensive determination that sufficiently considered alternatives.2
As Rubstello recalls, City representatives managed to convince the federal and state representatives to go back to court. The second time around, the court decided that the secretary’s determination was good enough. “You put so much effort into something sometimes, it becomes really important to you and that was one of those cases,” Rubstello said.
In 1995, Rubstello returned to his hometown of Seattle, and joined Ogden Murphy Wallace, PLLC, where he practices in the firm’s Municipal Department and its Employment and Labor Law Group.
Rubstello noted the differences between his prior work experience and Ogden Murphy Wallace. Before he joined the firm, he had mostly worked alone; when he joined the firm, he really enjoyed being in the company of other municipal lawyers he could share knowledge with, talk to, and learn from in his daily practice. He enjoys working in a midsize firm and the firm culture. “The camaraderie helps me get up in the morning too,” he said, “and I like going to a workplace with friends and people I can talk to about work and other things. It helps keep me going.”
At OMW, Rubstello has served as city attorney for several communities, including Bothell, Carnation, Lynnwood, Woodinville, Milton, Woodway and Clyde Hill. His work for Woodinville includes a land use case that went to the state Supreme Court, Phoenix Development v. City of Woodinville,3 which held that the city was not required to rezone property to allow for a minimum of four units per acre.
The decision allowed the city to preserve its zoning requirement of one acre per unit. Rubstello stated that he is proud of the case because it made new law, which has had an impact on zoning throughout the state.
Rubstello believes one possible difference between municipal law and other practice areas is that municipal work is aimed at trying to help communities. “I think that makes you a better person because you think in terms of, ‘How can I help, how can I contribute to a better quality of life in the area,’ which reflects on you and how you deal with other people,” he said.
The community feeling is something he especially enjoys — it is one facet that attracted him to municipal law. “Overall, the goals in municipal law are bigger than in individual cases,” he said. “You also develop an attachment to the community even if you don’t live there. You go there and relate to the people, which is good, and that helps shape municipal lawyers to be the kind of people they are.”
Municipal law has evolved over the course of his career as it has been shaped by our radically changing culture and governmental objectives. “Most of the years I’ve been in practice,” he said, “terms like social justice didn’t exist and spending money on social issues and working with nonprofits to do community work were small potatoes, and now that’s completely changed around.”
“The nation’s attitude toward crime has changed as well — what is crime, how do we enforce laws, do we put people in jail, are all evolving policy questions,” he added. “There are now all sorts of programs that didn’t exist in the past. The environment has been a significant concern, but it is now a bit on the back of the table compared to social issues. There are different values and attitudes of the next generation that affect the laws that are passed and the officials who get elected. That puts municipal attorneys in a position of trying to keep up.”
Looking forward, Rubstello noted that people may call him “conservative” because he grew up in a different time, but “we all need to go with the flow” he said, “and learn and allow ourselves to learn and be educated and to expand our minds a bit and not be embedded in the past.” Rubstello is sure that municipal law will continue to change with society’s norms, values and needs.
Outside work, Rubstello’s chief pastime is photography, which he took a shot at when he had an idea for a line of greeting cards and needed a way to create the necessary art. “I’m not good at drawing or other art,” he admitted, “so I picked up a camera to see what I could do with it and became hooked on it.”
Rubstello has been the organizer of the Seattle Street Photographers Group4 for the past four years. He’s also won some contests, including the City of SeaTac’s semi-annual contests, which he has won three times, and received honorable mention in various online competitions.
Beyond the creative side of photography, Rubstello simply finds it relaxing. While he has yet to focus on his greeting card idea, it is one of his post-retirement options as he gets closer to taking down his shingle. When the day comes, he wants to stay creative and active, and he has a number of ventures on his plate. So, we may yet see him selling greeting cards down the road, where you may find him in his 19-foot Airstream as he develops into a vagabond shutterbug touring the country.
1 132 Wn.2d 450, 938 P.2d 827 (1997).
2 The Benton Franklin Riverfront Trailway and Bridge Committee v. Lewis, 701 F.2d 784 (9th Cir. 1983).
3 171 Wn.2d 820, 256 P.3d 1150 (2011).
4 See https://www.facebook.com/groups/1575817
682631132/ (Facebook page); https://www.meet