October 3, 2006 in City

City settles lawsuits over RPS documents

By The Spokesman-Review

The city of Spokane apologized Monday for illegally withholding nearly 90 public documents related to a failed River Park Square parking garage deal in the 1990s.

The apology was part of an out-of-court settlement approved by the City Council on Monday, in which the city agreed to pay journalist Tim Connor, Camas Magazine and its publishers $299,000 for withholding the documents.

Council members voted 6-1 in favor of the settlement after rejecting a $350,000 offer late last summer. Councilman Brad Stark voted no. After the council meeting, Stark said he finds the settlement “repugnant” because it deprives taxpayers of money that could be used for services such as police and firefighters.

Connor said the city apology was one of the conditions of the settlement. “The apology really sealed the deal,” he said.

The settlement ends litigation in two separate lawsuits brought against the city in records cases in which the city sought to seal records because they involved attorney-client privilege.

After the vote, Connor handed out copies of the city’s apology.

It reads, “The city of Spokane acknowledges that it withheld as privileged in the River Park Square litigation documents that were not privileged. This was a misuse of the attorney-client privilege and a violation of the Washington State public (records) act, and the city of Spokane deeply regrets it.”

The settlement included $152,000 to compensate Connor and his editors and publishers, Judy Laddon and Larry Shook, for potential penalties allowed by the public records act and another $147,000 to pay their attorneys, including Spokane’s Center for Justice.

Breean Beggs, an attorney for the center, said the amount is believed to be the largest public records settlement ever in Washington. The public records act dates back more than 30 years.

The city was facing fines of up to $100 a day for withholding the documents detailing its participation in financing the expansion of the RPS mall garage and public operation of it. Connor was initially denied his request for documents in 2000.

They were eventually released through separate lawsuits involving litigation over the financially troubled deal.

Connor went to court to get the city to comply with his request, and initially lost at the trial level. The state Supreme Court last year sided with him and sent the case back to Spokane County Superior Court to determine if the documents were withheld illegally and what damages the city should pay. The city was facing the costs of taking both issues to trial.

Connor already had won $113,000 from the city in a separate RPS records case.

Shook said the documents show that the city was operating in secret when it arranged the garage deal.

The city in 2004 and 2005 settled most garage litigation by buying out garage bond investors and returning ownership to the mall owner, an affiliate of Cowles Co., which owns The Spokesman-Review. The garage deal is costing the city tens of millions of dollars.

In other business, the council was told by Mayor Dennis Hession that the 2007 city budget will not require any job cuts or additional taxes. However, utility rates are expected to increase 3 to 3.5 percent for water, sewer and garbage services. Hession said he wants to seek new non-tax sources of revenue, and continue to invest in economic development efforts.

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