PORT TOWNSEND — Jefferson County Commissioners will consider approving a $50,000 settlement this morning with a Clark County man after county officials forgot to fulfill his public records request in 2016.
Alan Harvey filed a lawsuit in Jefferson County Superior Court on Nov. 17, 2017, which reminded the county it never fulfilled his records request.
“We dedicate a lot of resources to trying to provide our fullest assistance under the Public Records Act,” said Philip Morley, county administrator. “We regret this mistake and we are working hard to continue to improve our records management system so this doesn’t happen again.”
Commissioners will consider settling the lawsuit with Harvey with a payment of $50,000 at today’s commissioners’ meeting, which will begin at 9 a.m. in commissioners’ chambers at the Jefferson County Courthouse, 1820 Jefferson St., Port Townsend.
The settlement is recommended by the prosecuting attorney’s office and the county’s risk manager.
Harvey requested records from Jefferson County on Nov. 16, 2016. A timely response to the request was sent Nov. 18, 2016, promising responsive records by Jan. 13, 2017. The county promptly provided the records once he filed suit.
In the months after Harvey filed his public records request, the county purchased the GovQA public records management system.
“These were things frankly that were underway before we were aware of Mr. Harvey’s issue,” Morley said. “It’s a huge step forward.”
Harvey requested on Nov. 17, 2016, all documents created between July 19, 2016, and Nov. 17, 2016, related to a specific criminal or internal investigation.
In the complaint Harvey’s attorney, David Gross of Pinnacle Law in Vancouver, Wash., filed on Harvey’s behalf, he claims the county didn’t produce any documents or records and that the county didn’t provide any written communication once his request had been acknowledged more than a year ago.
Jefferson County Sheriff David Stanko was the first official to respond to the request Nov. 17, 2016, assuring Harvey that “all information will be provided to you,” and that he was out of the office until Nov. 21, 2016.
Stanko’s confidential secretary told Harvey on Nov. 18, 2016, that he would receive the requested documents by Jan. 3, 2017, the lawsuit says.
Morley said the county handles about 500 public records requests each year. In 2016, the county fulfilled 495 and last year there were 520 requests, he said.
“This is unfortunate and we take full responsibility,” he said.
He said the goal was to settle the lawsuit as quickly as possible because there was no reason to engage in litigation. Had the lawsuit continued in court, it could have cost taxpayers even more money, he said.
State law allows judges to asses a penalty of up to $100 per day for each document the county withheld. Though unlikely, the county could have been forced to pay more than $2.5 million for the 70 documents.
The settlement payment would be paid out of the Non-Departmental budget.
This isn’t the only lawsuit related to the Public Records Act that the county has settled within the past year.
In April, Commissioners approved a $150,000 settlement after a roughly four-year legal battle over the county’s internet access logs.
The settlement was negotiated between Jefferson County officials and Michael Belenski, who sued the county in 2012 after he was denied two public records requests.
Belenski made two requests, one in 2010 and another in 2011, asking for more than 300 million log entries from the county’s internet access logs. Belenski was seeking logs that show the websites visited by county employees and how much time was spent on each site.
Morley said the key difference between the two cases is that it was an accident when the county didn’t respond to Harvey. With Belenski, “there was a disagreement about interpretation of the Public Records Act itself,” he said.
Reporter Jesse Major can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56250, or at [email protected].