June 9, 2005 in City

Thousands of West’s e-mails to be made public

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Spokane City Attorney Mike Connelly said Wednesday he expects to release within the next several days as many as five large binders filled with Mayor Jim West’s office e-mails.

They are among as many as 12,000 mayoral e-mails recovered from the mayor’s computer after allegations last month of sexual impropriety against West.

The documents are being prepared for release by the city attorney’s office in response to requests by news organizations under the state’s public records act.

E-mails that are considered confidential under state and federal laws will not be released, Connelly said, including those dealing with personal health issues, city legal matters, some city personnel matters, attorney-client privilege and privacy matters.

“We are going to try to err on the side of fullest disclosure if we can,” the city attorney said, adding that the law includes about eight types of communication that can or must be withheld.

Reports by The Spokesman-Review last month showed West was using the Web to communicate with young men he met on Gay.com.

On several occasions, the mayor sent e-mails from his city computer address to a computer analyst hired by the newspaper to confirm that West was using the Internet to solicit dates. The computer transcripts showed that West offered favors, gifts and positions at City Hall to some of them.

West has acknowledged that he pursued relationships with males who are of age.

City officials, including Connelly, took steps to preserve West’s e-mails after the reports were published in the newspaper on May 5.

The city subsequently received 19 public records requests for e-mails by the mayor and other city officials, including City Council members and two staff members in the mayor’s office. The newspaper submitted some of those requests.

A team of three lawyers and a legal assistant has reviewed each of the documents for privacy and other legal issues that might prevent release.

In addition, Connelly is reviewing documents that may contain private matters but appear to be appropriate for release. He said he is going to invite West’s lawyers to review those documents and then allow them time to prevent their release through a court order.

“Anything we don’t release we’ll identify,” Connelly said.

Marlene Feist, city spokeswoman, said the city’s computer department initially identified 50,000 e-mails on the mayor’s City Hall address on a series of backup files. It turned out the files included more than one copy of each e-mail. A special program available from Microsoft was used to sort the documents into 12,000 separate e-mails, which are being reviewed individually by the city attorney or his staff, Feist said.

“They have to look at each piece of paper, which is nightmarish,” Feist said.

The vast majority of the documents will be made public, she said. News organizations will be given a chance to review city copies of the e-mails and then request copies of individual documents at 15 cents a page, she said. A computer disc may be made available at a later date.

“Ultimately, our city attorney is responsible to the citizens,” Feist said.

She noted that Connelly has a history of supporting openness in government. He has served as chair of the state Public Disclosure Commission, which oversees campaign financing records.

The city has recently come under scrutiny for its policies of releasing documents in the legal dispute over River Park Square’s parking garage. The state Supreme Court is currently considering an appeal by a journalist for Camas Magazine who is seeking $740,000 from the city in attorney fees and penalties over dozens of documents requested in 2000 and 2001.

Council President Dennis Hession said the city could face liability if it released documents that are protected by the law, which is why West’s lawyers will be given a chance to object in court to the release of some documents.

Connelly said, “We are certainly aware of the consequences of not doing it right.”


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