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City has 30 days to appeal records fine

It is unclear if the City of Mercer Island will appeal the U.S. district court decision that has levied a fine of more than $90,000 for violations of the state Public Records Act (PRA) in the lawsuit brought by former assistant city manager, Londi Lindell. An appeal in such a case is required within 30 days of the date of the decision. The City Council must decide to move forward with such an action, and according to city laws, must do so in an executive session.

As of Reporter press time and due to the holiday weekend, the Council has yet to set or hold an executive session on the matter.

The PRA fine is not covered by insurance and must be paid for with city funds.

Over the past five-plus years, the city has not been fined for violating the Public Records Act.

In response to a records request by the Reporter last week, City Attorney Katie Knight wrote, “We do not have any records indicating any fines or penalties for Public Records Act violations that have been assessed against the city since at least January 2005.”

She continued: “We do not have any public records of any such actions or pending complaints filed against the city since January 2005 other than Bainbridge Island Police Guild and Cain v. City of Mercer Island, Koening, et al No. 82803-2 and the Lindell matter. The Koenig (matter) is appealing the decision by the superior court to deny release of public records of an investigation done by the city for the Bainbridge Police Department.”

Cities across Washington state have been inundated by public records requests and is paying the price not only in fines, but in hours and dollars spent handling the requests. The January 2011 Association of Washington Cities’ “Cityvision” magazine devoted an entire issue to the Public Records Act and its impact on cities and on the public. The series of stories included the costs and challenges of the requests, but also new ways of managing records and data to facilitate quick and complete responses.

A new law set in motion in the last Legislative session does offer some possible relief for cities in avoiding large fines. It eliminates the minimum level that penalties for public records violations must be set, from $5 per day and violation, to zero, thereby allowing judges the option of waiving a fine of any amount.

Substitute House Bill 1899 “amended” RCW 42.56.550 as of July 1, stipulating that fines can be set between zero and $100 per day (of delay) rather than between $5 and $100 per day in the original law. The House passed the bill by a vote of 96 to 2; the Senate vote was 47 yeas to 0 nays.

To see the Association of Washington Cities “Citivision” magazine, go to www.awcnet.org.

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