A public records request about a seating chart may cost Spokane County more than $100,000 under a state Supreme Court ruling released Thursday.
The high court overturned two lower courts’ dismissals of a 2006 lawsuit by the Neighborhood Alliance of Spokane County.
The nonprofit organization was trying to determine whether then-County Commissioner Phil Harris’ son Steve was given a county job before the formal hiring process began.
The question arose in February 2006 when copies of a seating chart emerged from a printer in the Building and Planning Department.
The alliance sought documents adding last names to the chart’s depiction of a cubicle for “Ron & Steve” as well as a computer log showing when the chart was created.
The court ruled the county conducted an inadequate search for the computer time stamp, looking on the wrong computer and allowing the information to be destroyed.
Pam Knutsen, the assistant department director who created the seating chart, turned over copies of the chart, prompting the alliance to file a second request for the documents’ computer time stamps.
Knutsen said Thursday that she pointed out an inconsistency in the time stamps, caused when the documents were transferred into a new computer in April 2006 after her old one failed.
The Supreme Court said county officials should have searched Knutsen’s old computer before its hard drive was erased.
Also, the court said, county officials improperly rejected an alliance request for documents that might identify “Ron & Steve.” County officials told the alliance that the Public Records Act “does not require agencies to explain public records.”
When the nonprofit organization sued, the county argued that the case wasn’t subject to court rules requiring witnesses to disclose information before trial.
Wrong again, the Supreme Court ruled.
Justices Barbara Madsen and Mary Fairhurst said in a separate concurrence that the county should have had a chance to argue to the trial court that its search was adequate.
“Certainly on the record we have, it appears unlikely the attempt would be successful,” Madsen and Fairhurst said.
They agreed with the rest of the court that the Court of Appeals properly ruled that federal Freedom of Information Act guidelines should be used to determine whether a search is adequate, setting a precedent for future cases.
County Commission Chairman Al French agreed with Neighborhood Alliance attorney Breean Beggs that the ruling clarifies the Public Disclosure Act and improves plaintiffs’ ability to collect information for trials.
However, French and attorney Pat Riskin, who represented the county, said they hadn’t had time to study the ruling and weren’t prepared to comment on it.
The court said an inadequate search may be considered as an “aggravating factor” in calculating penalties for violation of the disclosure law, but penalties weren’t automatically justified in this case.
Instead, justices remanded the case to a Lincoln County trial judge for a decision on penalties as well as an award for court costs and attorney fees.
Beggs estimated the $5- to $100-a-day penalties in effect at the time of the lawsuit might lead to an award in the range of $10,000 to $200,000. In addition, he said, the cost of his representation of the Neighborhood Alliance, on behalf of the Center for Justice, “is probably over $100,000 right now.”
Beggs said the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals opinions “both presume that the ‘Steve’ on the seating chart was Steve Harris.” An email tied Harris to the unidentified Steve on the chart, Beggs said.
However, Knutsen said Thursday that the chart referred to planner Steve Davenport, who was to have been reassigned. He couldn’t be reached for comment Thursday.
“The whole thing went sideways” when an employee saw the chart and passed a copy to a union steward, Knutsen said.
Beggs dismissed her explanation on grounds that there were two Steves on one of three versions of the chart county officials released. In addition to the “Ron & Steve” cubicle, there was a “Steve” cubicle with Davenport’s phone number.