In a war of words – or at least a legal battle over a lack of them – the tiny town of Mesa, Washington, was ordered Thursday to fork over $175,000 to its former mayor following a 16-year legal battle that started with a revoked building permit.
The Division III Court of Appeals upheld an earlier judge’s award of $175,000 to Jeff and Donna Zink, who were seeking double that amount. The decision could end a legal battle that started in 2002 when the city of Mesa revoked the Zinks’ building permit to remodel their home.
That $175,000 award means that every person in Mesa, which had 489 residents in the 2010 Census, must pay $357.87 to settle the long-standing dispute.
“Frankly, the city sees it as a win,” said Kennewick attorney Leland “Lee” Kerr, who represents Mesa. “You have to take these requests seriously and fulfill the mandate of the law. Otherwise, it’s a liability of $100 a day for each document you don’t produce.”
The feud started in 2002 when the city revoked a building permit, obtained two years earlier, by the Zinks. The permit was pulled right after Donna Zink ended a term on the Mesa City Council.
“They were getting even with me,” Zink said. “In my opinion, it was retaliatory.”
The same month the city revoked their building permit, the Zinks started filing requests for records.
Some of those requests sought information on the permit and others, some 172 in all, “related to the Zinks’ ‘self-described watchdog type role in the City,’ ” court records state.
After city officials refused to comply with many of those requests, the Zinks filed a lawsuit in 2003. Now-retired Judge William Acey ruled that the city had “more than substantially complied” with the requests which “amounted to unlawful harassment.”
Zink, a 58-year-old retired psychiatric nurse, said she was portrayed as a “abusive records requester.”
“Oh my gosh, poor city. We asked for all their meeting minutes. It’s one book,” she said.
The Zinks appealed and state appellate judges reversed Acey’s ruling, directing him to follow penalties set out in the Public Records Act. Acey awarded the Zinks $245,940.
But the case was put on hold to wait for a Washington state Supreme Court ruling, one which established guidelines for judges to use to decide penalties in cases like the one the Zinks filed against Mesa.
After another round of legal battles, the case got back to Superior Court Judge Bruce Spanner in 2015.
He ruled that a 2011 law, which eliminated the minimum daily fine of $5 per record, was retroactive to the Zinks’ case. Despite that, he ordered Mesa to pay the Zinks $352,955 based on 33 violations of the Public Records Act.
But Spanner cut that amount to $175,000 based on Mesa’s small size. The lesser award was “such an amount that would avoid this windfall to the (Zinks). It will certainly sting the city but will not, in my judgment, cripple them,” Spanner said in court records.
“Judge Spanner said it was like giving me $1 million for pouring hot coffee on myself,” Zink said. “But what are you supposed to do, say, ‘Oh well?’ ”
Zink, who represents herself, said she intends to appeal the Thursday ruling to the Washington Supreme Court because she believes Spanner erred when he ruled the 2011 law applied to her 2003 lawsuit.
“I think I have all the same rights as cases decided before me and after me,” she said. “Just because they kept bouncing our case does not mean I lose my rights.”
The lawsuit with Mesa remains a matter of principle, said Zink, who has also successfully battled county and state officials to turn over records on Level 1 sex offenders.
“I wasn’t trying to penalize the people here. (Mesa officials) could have given me the records … and it would have been over,” she said. “But they withheld those records for 23,000 days. And, they want to know why the penalties are so high.”
Kerr, who also represents Pasco, Benton City and Sunnyside, said the lawsuit is a good lesson for all small-town officials.
“Records requests are something that everybody needs to take very seriously to make sure the rights of citizens are preserved,” he said. “But there also has to be some responsibility on the other side. The city only has so many available resources.”
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