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Appeals court rules against county in records case

Spokane County didn’t look hard enough for documents a local citizens group was seeking when it alleged nepotism in county hiring, a state appeals court has said. Now the county faces thousands of dollars in fines for violating the state’s public records law.

The state Court of Appeals recently overturned one of two rulings siding with the county in a 2005 public records dispute with the Neighborhood Alliance. The group sought records that would bolster its contention that Steve Harris, the son of then-County Commissioner Phil Harris, was illegally hired for a job in the Building and Planning Department.

Breean Beggs of the Center for Justice, which represented the alliance, said there was never any question that the county failed to find the documents by accident: “They said they didn’t have to produce it.”

But Patrick Risken, a private attorney representing the county, argued the county wasn’t deliberately trying to withhold anything. “It was a search that, according to the court of appeals, didn’t go far enough.”

An anonymous county employee sent the alliance a staff seating chart for the department with “Steve” and a phone extension number written on it. The employee claimed the chart was from February 2005, suggesting that Steve Harris was assigned the seat before the job was advertised in March and Harris was hired.

The alliance filed a public records request in May for all records from the first three months of 2005 that showed seating assignments in the department, and followed that with a request for all computer logs and files that could be connected with the seating chart.

The county provided computer records from the department’s assistant director, Pam Knutsen, indicating there was nothing to reveal if the “Steve” on the seating chart was Steve Harris. But Knutsen had received a new computer in April, and county officials never checked her old computer for the records the alliance requested. Eventually the old hard drive was erased so it could be given to another county worker.

When the alliance sued the county in 2006 for not providing all the records the law requires, County Commissioner Todd Mielke claimed the suit was politically motivated because the alliance’s former director Bonnie Mager was running against Phil Harris.

Mager won; Steve Harris lost his county job in 2008. County officials said he was laid off as part of a cut back in the department; he said it was retaliation for a whistleblower complaint.

A Lincoln County judge dismissed the public records lawsuit last year, saying the county had complied with the law that requires governments to provide public records. The appeals court disagreed. A case shouldn’t be dismissed unless the government agency can prove it followed the law and adequately searched for a record, the panel said.

“It did not search the computer Ms. Knutsen was using when the seating chart was created,” Judge Teresa Kulik wrote in the unanimous decision.

The county did comply with another alliance request, to provide any information on the identity of the “Steve” on the chart, and that claim was properly dismissed, the appeals court said.

But because the county’s search for the computer records wasn’t adequate, the Lincoln County trial court should hold a hearing on attorneys’ fees, costs and penalties against the county, the appeals court ruled.

State law requires a fine for refusing a public records request; the only decision left up to a judge is how much. Fines can range from $5 to $100 per day; the clock starts when the request is filed and runs until the record is produced or the case ends.

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