Cost of dispute falls on Monroe

MONROE — The meter has been running for more than three years.

The city has spent at least $76,295 on attorneys who have withheld information from Meredith Mechling, a local open government activist.

Now a state appeals court has ruled in Mechling’s favor, and the city will have to pay her legal fees, about $110,000 so far.

The expense comes at a bad time for Monroe. The city’s projected 2010 budget deficit grew to $290,000 on Tuesday, when the City Council noticed revenue estimates included money tied to a big-box store yet to be built.

Mechling offered to settle the case against the city for $192,950 — the cost of her attorney fees plus about $84,000 in penalties for violating the public records law.

The City Council rejected the offer on Tuesday, with City Councilman Mitch Ruth the sole dissenting vote.

“No matter what the dollar amount is, it’s going to have a negative impact on this upcoming fiscal year,” Ruth said Thursday.

City Attorney Phil Olbrechts called the offer inflated. He believes the city will save money by letting a lower court set the price tag.

The court could tell the city it only needs to pay a portion of Mechling’s fees and charge the city less severe penalties, Olbrechts said.

“The city’s interest at this point is to spend as little more money on this as possible,” Olbrechts said.

The case itself relates to e-mails sent among City Council members and other officials in 2005. Mechling was concerned that debate that should have been held in public was being conducted online.

She requested dozens of documents. The city gave her some, but redacted information in e-mails that had been sent from personal accounts. Other e-mails were withheld outright, with the city claiming attorney-client privilege.

Mechling sued for the information in 2006. A Snohomish Superior Court judge backed the city and Mechling appealed.

“I am tenacious,” she said.

Mechling was rewarded by a three-judge panel. The state Court of Appeals unanimously agreed in an Oct. 26 decision that Monroe must hand over the e-mails.

Mechling — the wife of former City Councilman Marc Mechling and treasurer of Mayor Donnetta Walser’s failed re-election campaign — faulted the legal advice given to Monroe.

The city doesn’t have an in-house attorney, instead hiring counsel from the Seattle firm Ogden Murphy Wallace on a variable hourly rate.

Lawyers with the firm, including Olbrechts, and city officials said they couldn’t discuss the specifics of the case until it is completely resolved.

The cost to settle the case — to pay penalties and cover legal expenses — will come out of Monroe’s general fund, city officials said. Those tax dollars support departments such as the police, parks and planning.

Those departments are already being squeezed. With the 2010 deficit at $290,000, taxpayers may feel the pinch too, as the city considers a new tax and more furlough days for city staff.

Many expect the final bill on Mechling’s case to arrive in 2010.

Until then, Mechling will wait.

“It seems silly to keep that meter running,” she said. “It seems silly that it has gone on as long as it has.”

Andy Rathbun: 425-339-3455, arathbun@heraldnet.com

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