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Originally published Friday, June 28, 2013 at 9:19 PM

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Shoreline public-records case ends after 7 years

In all, the city of Shoreline will pay $538,555, plus its own legal fees, for violating the state Public Records Act by not releasing the electronic version of an email.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Nearly seven years after a puzzling statement at a Shoreline City Council meeting triggered an unusual Public Records Act lawsuit, the case ended Friday when a judge ordered the city to pay more than $400,000 to cover the plaintiffs’ legal fees.

The $438,555 judgment means the city will pay a total of $538,555, plus its own attorneys costs, for violating the state Public Records Act by not releasing the electronic version of an email to the deputy mayor.

“It was nice to finally have some closure on a case that has dragged on for so long,” said Michelle Earl-Hubbard, an attorney for those who sued the city.

Eric Bratton, a city of Shoreline spokesman, said the city is “disappointed in today’s ruling and will be looking at our options moving forward.”

The lawsuit, O’Neill vs. Shoreline, went to the state Supreme Court and back, eventually establishing that state public-records law applies to “metadata,” or data about data — in this case, electronic information indicating the sender of an email.

The suit originated at a September 2006 City Council meeting in which former Deputy Mayor Maggie Fimia read aloud an email she said she had received from Beth O’Neill.

O’Neill, who was attending the meeting, had not sent the message. So she requested a copy of it to see who did.

But before handing it over, Fimia removed the part of the email that indicated the sender. And then she deleted the email itself.

The city then decided not to dissect Fimia’s computer to get the email’s metadata.

O’Neill sued, claiming the city had violated the Public Records Act.

A Superior Court judge disagreed, but that ruling was overturned in 2010 by the state Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court’s order made Washington the second state in the country in which metadata is considered part of a public record, Earl-Hubbard said.

The city agreed to pay $100,000 for violating the law.

Most of the additional money ordered Friday is going to Earl-Hubbard and other attorneys who have been representing the O’Neills for free.

“We didn’t expect it to be 6½ years when we signed on,” Earl-Hubbard said.

But she said it was worth it because the long fight established important case law.

“It’s a reminder that the public-records law matters,” she said.

Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or brosenthal@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @brianmrosenthal

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