Jefferson County commissioners and county staff discuss a proposed change to the county’s public records policy during their meeting Monday afternoon. (Jesse Major/Peninsula Daily News)

Jefferson County commissioners and county staff discuss a proposed change to the county’s public records policy during their meeting Monday afternoon. (Jesse Major/Peninsula Daily News)

Jefferson commissioners seek public input on public records policy changes

PORT TOWNSEND — Jefferson County commissioners are asking the public to weigh in on proposed changes to the county’s public records policy.

Commissioners were set to approve a hearing on the policy, but pulled the measure from the consent agenda after some raised concerns during public comment Monday.

Tom Thiersch, who was first to ask the commissioners to reconsider setting a hearing date for the 36-page document, called the proposed policy a “monstrosity.”

The document would replace the county’s existing 12-page policy and bring the county into compliance with new legislation passed last year, officials said.

“What’s being proposed is not ready for prime time,” he said. “It’s not even ready for an audition for prime time.”

Thiersch said the proposed policy needlessly rephrases existing state laws, which he felt could become a problem if the laws change again.

“When those laws change, your policy becomes inconsistent, obsolete and confusing to the public,” he said. “Best case: You’re misleading the public. Worst case: You’re just opening yourselves up for more litigation.”

The commissioners also heard from Michael Belenski, who was awarded $150,000 in April after the Board of Commissioners agreed to settle his public records lawsuit.

The county settled another public records lawsuit Monday for $50,000, after county officials forgot to fulfill a request in 2016.

Belenski told the commissioners that some language in the proposed policy doesn’t line up with state law. One instance he highlighted was a section titled “Exemptions from Disclosure.”

“There is no exemption from disclosure,” he said. “Records relevant to a request are disclosed, OK.”

He said the county isn’t compelled to produce exempt records, but it must disclose that they exist.

“If you’ve got records relevant to my request, then they are disclosed to me,” he said. “You don’t have to produce them to me, but at least I know they exist so I can go to court and compel a judge to order you to give them to me.”

Following public comment, commissioners tabled setting a hearing date, with plans of reconsidering it next Monday.

The planned hearing originally called for a month of accepting public comment.

“The Prosecutor’s Office in particular is very eager to see that we update our policy to be in concert with legislation that was adopted amending the Public Records Act last year,” said County Administrator Philip Morley. “Doing a deliberative process is worthwhile.”

Chief Civil Prosecuting Attorney Phillip Hunsucker said Belenski’s assessment of disclosure versus producing was correct.

“That’s why you need public comment,” Hunsucker said. “We ought to get comment so we can look at it and see what other things need to be changed.

“It’s at a point now where staff can’t do much more without [public comment].”

He said he feels it is a carefully written document that will help people understand the county’s policy and is an effort for the county to be in compliance with state law.

Commissioners decided during their afternoon session to move forward and have staff place a request for a hearing on the consent agenda next Monday.

Commissioners said this would give the public an opportunity to comment over the next month or so. The county could then revisit the policy and make changes as needed, they said.

Morley said that in preparing the policy, it was intended to make it easier to understand the county’s public records policy, rather than referencing state law and requiring staff and the public to refer to the state law.

“It’s really a guideline for our staff and public,” he said. “I think it was geared toward trying to make our rules complete so that people could follow them.”

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Reporter Jesse Major can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56250, or at [email protected].

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