OLYMPIA – The Washington Supreme Court on Thursday said that Spokane judges wrongly threw out journalist Tim Connor’s claim that the city illegally denied him documents related to River Park Square.
“This opinion reaches to all citizens of Washington and protects their right to get a timely and full response from an agency,” said Nancy Pacharzina, one of Connor’s attorneys. Earlier this year, Connor won $33,000 in penalties and roughly $60,000 in attorneys’ fees from the city for its refusal to release an earlier batch of River Park Square documents.
But attorney Laurel Siddoway, representing the city, said the high court ruling simply sends the case back to Spokane County Superior Court.
“All they got is a day in court,” Siddoway said. “Now they get to go try and make their case.”
Connor, a journalist for the online publication Camas Magazine, is suing the city for attorney’s fees and $740,000 in penalties on the basis that the city wrongfully refused to turn over dozens of documents he requested in 2000 and 2001.
The city wanted Connor’s suit dismissed, saying that he got most of the documents in 2002 as the result of two other court cases. That made Connor’s claim moot, the city’s attorneys said.
A Spokane County Superior Court judge agreed, as did a three-judge appeals court last year. But the Supreme Court unanimously said that the lower courts both made a mistake by tossing out the case. Connor never got a ruling on whether he’d been improperly denied the documents.
“If Connor is correct, his right to inspect and copy the documents was improperly denied from the time of his request to the disclosure,” wrote Justice Richard Sanders. “Penalties must be assessed accordingly.”
Otherwise, he said, government agencies could routinely deny public requests for records. In the presumably rare case where someone had the fortitude to file suit, the agency could then simply release the records and say the lawsuit and penalties were now moot.
Letting government get away with that, Sanders said, “flouts the purpose” of the state law requiring disclosure of most government records.
Connor was a writer for Camas Magazine, which focused intensely on the controversy surrounding the downtown Spokane River Park Square project. The project, first proposed in the mid-1990s as a way to shore up a crumbling retail district, sparked a legal battle between the mall’s developer and the city, as well as a federal securities lawsuit involving the bondholders for the project.
The mall is owned by affiliates of Cowles Publishing Company, which also owns The Spokesman-Review.
At Supreme Court arguments in June, Connor said the documents were “the crown jewels” of the story, detailing what city officials knew and when they knew it. Many of the documents were notes of meetings.
In its initial denial of Connor’s request, the city said that the records were confidential legal documents subject to attorney-client privilege. State law allows for such an exemption, so the government can protect itself – and taxpayers – from lawsuits. The city finally turned them over because they were made public as part of other River Park Square litigation, making it pointless to continue to deny them to Connor.
But Connor maintains that the dozens of withheld documents weren’t protected by attorney-client privilege. That will be the crux of his argument now in Superior Court.
Siddoway said she’s encouraged by earlier decisions in this case. Before dismissing the case, Judge James Murphy, now retired, reviewed about 20 percent of the documents in question. In every one of those cases, Siddoway said, the judge agreed that the city was right to think that the document was exempt from public disclosure.
That, Siddoway said, “suggests that the city was pretty careful about the calls it was making.”
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