August 14, 2009 in City

County broke records law, court says

Citizens group sought public documents about hiring
By The Spokesman-Review
 

Penalty awaits

State law requires fines for refusal of public records requests ranging from $5 to $100 a day; the clock starts when the request is filed and runs until the record is produced or the case ends.

Spokane County didn’t look hard enough for documents sought by a citizens group 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 to bolster its contention that Steve Harris, the son of then-Commissioner Phil Harris, was illegally hired for a job in the Building and Planning Department.

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,” he said.

Breean Beggs, of the Center for Justice, which represented the alliance, said there was no question of the county’s intentions: “They said they didn’t have to produce it.”

An anonymous county employee sent the alliance a staff seating chart for the department with “Steve” and a phone number written on it. The employee said the chart was from February 2005, suggesting Steve Harris was assigned the seat before the job was advertised in March and he 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. It followed up 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, that didn’t indicate 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. Eventually the old hard drive was erased so it could be given to another worker.

When the alliance sued the county in 2006, Commissioner Todd Mielke said the suit was politically motivated, noting former alliance 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 cutback in the department; he said his job loss was retaliation for a whistle-blower complaint.

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

The county “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 it had on the identity of the “Steve” on the chart, the appeals court said.

The Lincoln County trial court should hold a hearing on attorneys’ fees, costs and penalties against the county, the appeals court ruled.


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