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City of Spokane fined in RPS battle

The city of Spokane will have to pay a fine of more than $21,000 to Camas Magazine for illegally withholding public documents on the River Park Square project requested by the magazine’s reporter.

Spokane County Superior Court Judge Richard Schroeder said the city was negligent in delaying the release of hundreds of documents about the downtown project requested by reporter Tim Connor in 2000. All of the documents weren’t turned over until sometime in the spring of 2003.

Schroeder fined the city $20 a day for violating the state Public Records Act, and said it must also pay the magazine’s costs and legal fees from bringing the case. Those costs have yet to be determined, but the daily fine for more than three years would exceed $21,000.

The judge didn’t agree with Camas that the city acted in bad faith, a decision that could have cost the city, and its taxpayers, more than $1 million.

“It appears to the court that much of this case results from the confusion surrounding the change in the form of city government during the year 2000,” he said. Because of changes in city staff, different people were assigned at different times to look for the documents Connor requested and some documents were moved to different offices.

What Schroeder called a “breakdown in managing this request” meant Connor couldn’t review information that was public record under Washington state law.

Connor hailed the ruling as “a great day for public disclosure in the City of Spokane,” which, he contended, “failed miserably” in its duty to respond to the public.

He disagreed with Schroeder’s decision that the city was not guilty of bad faith. “But I think we have to respect the conclusion of the judge on that,” Connor added.

Laurel Siddoway, the city’s special attorney for River Park Square issues, said city officials have conceded Connor’s request for documents was handled poorly. But they insisted the magazine was wrong in accusing staff of “egregious bad faith.”

That could have resulted in fines of $100 per day for each of the documents.

“I was gratified the judge did not find that,” Siddoway said. “It would have amounted to millions of dollars” in fines.

City Attorney Mike Connelly improved public records policies after he was hired in 2001, city spokeswoman Marlene Feist said. One of the things he did was assign one attorney to all public records requests so they could be tracked more effectively, she said.

Many of the people involved in handling Connor’s records request no longer work for the city, and no single person was responsible for all of the delays, Feist said. “It was a lot of people with a lot of little pieces of the problem,” she said.

The documents involve the expansion of the downtown mall, which was renovated through a public-private partnership between the city and the downtown development companies owned by Cowles Publishing Co., which also owns The Spokesman-Review.

Part of that partnership involved the expansion of the mall’s garage, which was projected to pay for all of its costs with parking revenues. But after the mall opened, the revenue projections proved wildly optimistic, the garage could not cover its debts and expenses, and the relationship between the city and the mall developer deteriorated into a series of legal battles.

In writing about River Park Square and its effect on the city for Camas, Connor filed a request with the city for all public records connected to the project. When the city delivered some, but withheld others, he eventually filed a lawsuit under the state law that requires government to make most documents available to the public.

The documents that were illegally withheld for various lengths of time included some that were held by former City Councilwoman Roberta Greene, former city bond attorney Roy Koegen and Community Development Director Mike Adolfae, as well as files containing information about Nordstrom, the anchor tenant of the downtown mall.

There were also a group of documents that came to be known during the case as “mysteriously appearing files.” A former executive assistant to the city manager had coordinated one of the early searches for River Park Square documents that Connor requested and found some in a file cabinet in the mayor’s office. After they were turned over to Connor, she found other River Park Square documents in the file cabinet that hadn’t been there before.

“The only logical conclusion regarding this situation is that someone working for the city had these files and failed to produce them as a result of the original requests,” Schroeder said.