ARLINGTON — The City Council had a choice: Pay $500 to an inmate who claims that Arlington failed to quickly provide copies of his case file or be prepared to spend far more for the city attorney to continue the battle in court.
Council members voted unanimously last week to ignore the inmate’s offer. Instead, they will fight the felon, who was convicted of three counts of child rape.
Under the state Public Records Act, people have a right to obtain copies of public records in a timely fashion. If a public agency fails to meet the request, it can be fined.
However, Arlington’s lawyer Steven Peiffle believes some prison inmates are taking advantage of the right to request records.
“It’s as if a cottage industry has arisen. Prison inmates are making public records requests with the idea of tripping up small, understaffed cities in order to make some money,” Peiffle said. “I told the council that while it would have been cheaper to accept the $500 settlement, paying off this inmate would send a dangerous message.”
One of the provisions of the public records act is that any information that might identify victims of child assault, for example, must be redacted from the records. It took city staff two months longer than anticipated to fulfill the inmate’s request order to prepare copies of the nearly 300 pages of his case file at the Arlington Police Department, said city clerk and spokeswoman Kristin Banfield.
In 2010, Arlington police received more than 1,000 records requests, Peiffle said. The police department relies on volunteers to answer phones and perform other duties so that staff can work on these requests.
State law says that public records act penalties can’t be awarded to felons unless the court finds that a public agency acted in bad faith in denying the person the opportunity to see a public record.
In early December, a Snohomish County Superior Court judge ruled that the city of Arlington acted in good faith and got the copy of the inmate’s file to him as quickly as possible.
On Dec. 20, Peiffle received a letter from the inmate, saying that felon would appeal the court’s decision.
“I am willing to accept $500,” the inmate wrote. “Will the city justify the cost to litigate this to the higher court?”
Paying the inmate to go away would have been bad public policy, Peiffle said.
“What’s to stop other inmates from targeting Arlington?” he said.
Public records act expert Ramsey Ramerman, who works in Everett city attorney’s office, agreed.
“The public records act was established to build trust in government and as a tool to fight corruption. The vast majority of people use it properly,” Ramerman said. “But I have heard of prisoners who had success in making records requests and catching small towns making mistakes. With the volume of requests, it’s pretty simple to make an error, and the penalties can add up fast. This can be devastating to small towns.”
Penalties for cities that don’t follow the records act are necessary to motivate government officials, Ramerman said.
“It’s unfortunate, however, that people in prison would use it for their gain,” he said.
Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427; firstname.lastname@example.org