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City sued for refusing release of RPS settlement documents

Sat., April 29, 2006

The city of Spokane received notice this week that a lawsuit has been filed seeking documents that were used by city leaders to determine how much financial concession River Park Square developers should receive in the settlement of the bitter legal dispute.

The document in question was prepared by city Financial Officer Gavin Cooley and was presented to the City Council in an executive session prior to the massive RPS settlement. After arguing for years that RPS developers owed taxpayers more than $30 million, the city allowed them to settle for a fraction of that amount, said Breean Beggs of the Center for Justice.

The record is being sought by Tim Connor, senior editor of the online publication Camas Magazine, and his colleague, Larry Shook. They are being represented by Beggs.

According to the lawsuit, Laurel Siddoway, a private attorney hired by the city to litigate the RPS legal dispute, wrote both Connor and Shook on March 7, 2005, saying that the Cooley records would not be released because the city deemed them to be “exempt work product.” U.S. District Judge Edward Shea ruled in a February 2005 hearing that the Cooley documents should be made public.

“A lot of people want to see this Gavin Cooley memo,” Beggs said. “It explains why the city took a dive on the settlement. Secondly, our clients are going to ask for the maximum penalties because … the (federal) judge has already ruled that (the document) is not exempt.”

The mall is owned by affiliates of Cowles Co., which also owns The Spokesman-Review.

On Friday, Siddoway said that the city believes the Cooley document should not be released “because it was the culmination of the work of the lawyers and accountants in providing the City Council with information for settlement analysis purposes.”

While acknowledging Shea’s ruling, Siddoway noted that the settlement was reached before that action took place. The city appealed Shea’s ruling to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, but it didn’t hear the case.

Beggs argues that the Ninth Circuit’s action, or lack of it, reverts the case to Shea’s previous ruling that the Cooley document should be released.

“To date, the City has not provided either plaintiff with the Gavin Cooley documents responsive to their separate requests,” the lawsuit states.

The mall renovation was proposed in the mid-1990s as a way to shore up a declining downtown retail district by building a new Nordstrom store, expanding a 20-year-old mall, adding a multiplex theater and enlarging the existing garage. The city agreed to several financing arrangements to help the mall’s owner, the development affiliates of Cowles Co.

A nonprofit foundation sold bonds backed by the expanded garage’s projected revenues and bought the expanded parking facility from the mall developer for $26.5 million. The city set up a development authority to oversee garage operations and was to receive the garage when the bonds were paid off; in return, it passed an ordinance promising to loan money from its parking meter fund to cover certain expenses if garage revenues were too low.

After the garage opened, revenues were so poor that some months it struggled just to cover bond payments. The city refused to loan the money that might never be repaid, and a cascade of lawsuits started.

Connor previously won a judgment of several thousands of dollars against the city for its failure to release records from an earlier request for RPS documents. A related suit from that action remains before Superior Court Judge Neal Rielly for review, Beggs said.

In the most recent suit, Beggs is requesting that a judge fine the city between $5 and $100 per day, as set by state law, for every day the city has delayed in producing the Cooley document.

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