Right to know, Part I: a county's negligence
We can only hope that last week's nearly $300,000 judgment against King County for years of flouting a legitimate public-records request...
We can only hope that last week's nearly $300,000 judgment against King County for years of flouting a legitimate public-records request will make an impression on public agencies.
There likely won't be others like it. Though the judgment is the largest Public Disclosure Act verdict in state history, plaintiff Armen Yousoufian says it barely covers the costs involved. Yousoufian's story does not bode well for other citizens without his resources. Acting independently, he was able to wrest public documents from an agency reluctant to give them over. Nor does the case bode well for attorneys' willingness to take such cases.
King County dragged its bureaucratic feet and misled Yousoufian repeatedly about his 1997 request for records about the county's anticipated economic benefit from the planned Seahawks Stadium.
In 2001, King County Superior Court Judge Kathleen Learned ruled in Yousoufian's favor, but levied a fine Yousoufian felt was inadequate. On appeal, the state Supreme Court agreed.
Last week, Judge Michael Hayden boosted the fine from $5 to $15 a day — or $123,000 — and added another $171,000 in attorney fees for the appeals process. That's on top of the $82,000 in attorney fees awarded in 2001.
It was a victory to be sure, but one Yousoufian and his attorneys fear is without the teeth to make King County and other agencies take careful notice — and with good reason.
While expressing relief the record-high verdict was not as steep as Yousoufian sought, a spokeswoman for King County Executive Ron Sims, Carolyn Duncan, characterized the case in an almost unpenitent way.
"... We also note that there was never a finding of bad faith on the county's part," she said.
Technically, that's true. In 2001, Learned ruled "the county was negligent ... at every step of the way, and this negligence amounted to a lack of good faith." The appeals court ratcheted up its criticism, characterizing the failure to disclose public documents as "gross negligence."
There is nothing for the county to be proud about here.
A better, more reassuring response would have been: "We screwed up. Big time. We're sorry. We won't ever do it again."
But don't hold your breath on that one.
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