Taxpayers on the hook for officials’ wrongful secrecy

The News Tribune Editorial, November 4, 2014

When public officials play fast and loose with open meetings and records laws, the public is often a two-time loser as a result.

 

First, citizens are shut out of information that they’re entitled to by state law. Then taxpayers have to pick up the tab if someone decides to sue because of an alleged violation.

 

That’s happening in at least three South Sound jurisdictions, and the costs are adding up.

 

Port of Tacoma commissioners are the most recent target of a lawsuit by Olympia good government advocate Arthur West. He’s suing over the commissioners’ closed-door meetings with their counterparts at the Port of Seattle to forge an operations alliance.

 

The commissioners, not surprisingly, have unanimously authorized the port to pay their legal fees up to $50,000 to defend against the lawsuit. Costs over that will be paid by the port’s liability insurer. The port would pay any fines or judgments if it’s determined the commissioners violated the Open Meetings Act.

 

The commissioners claim that federal law allows the minutes of those meetings to be kept secret, and for that reason their attorneys told them they could exclude the public. That’s quite a stretch, especially when it involves an issue of such regional importance and politically charged implications.

 

Even if it’s determined that the commissioners did not technically violate state law, they certainly violated its spirit. There’s no good reason to have shut the public out of most of their discussions.

 

The port commissioners aren’t the only public officials racking up legal bills in defense of secrecy. Two of them – Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist and Puyallup City Councilman Steve Vermillion – are fighting lower-court decisions against them all the way to the Washington Supreme Court for violations of the Public Records Act. Who wouldn’t if the taxpayers were footing the bill?

 

In June, a Pierce County Superior Court judge rightly told Vermillion to cough up emails generated by his private account that pertained to city business – as requested by the same Arthur West who is suing the Port of Tacoma commissioners.

 

Puyallup is paying for Vermillion’s attorney – $31,637.50 to date – and those costs are going up now that the state Supreme Court has decided to hear his appeal. In addition, the case is taking up Puyallup City Attorney Kevin Yamamoto’s time.

 

Lindquists’s case – in which he is fighting disclosure of records and text messages involving his personal cellphone – is proving even more lucrative to outside attorneys. As of mid-October, Pierce County had paid more than $253,000 defending his claim to the appeals court level.

 

Now Lindquist is asking the state’s highest court to review the Court of Appeals ruling that a lower court should examine the phone records to determine if they pertained to public business. Ka-ching!

 

Public officials need to understand that state open records and meetings laws aren’t just suggestions. They play an important role in protecting the public’s interest and – in a litigious society where some people recognize the financial rewards of suing violators – their pocketbooks.

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