County to settle public records lawsuit for $575,000

EVERETT — Snohomish County has agreed to pay a $575,000 settlement to resolve a public records lawsuit brought by activists promoting environmental causes in farming areas.

The agreement with Citizens for Sustainable Development, finalized Thursday, also calls for the county to appoint the group’s president to a committee that mediates between farm and environmental interests.

Neither Sustainable Development’s president, Lew Roane, or its attorney, DeWelle Ellsworth, could be reached by phone or email Friday.

The group has been a registered nonprofit with the state since 2010. It has taken issue with county policies in the Snohomish River floodplain, accusing county officials of harboring a bias toward agricultural businesses. That has come, the group alleges, at the expense of taxpayer money and the environment.

It has accused county leaders of stacking the Sustainable Lands Strategy, the initiative to balance fish and farm priorities, in favor of agricultural businesses. The settlement calls for appointing Roane to the executive committee that oversees the Sustainable Lands Strategy.

Issues the group has pursued through records requests include a livestock manure lagoon in the floodplain, and a deal in which the county bought development rights to preserve farming at Hollandia Farms, also known as Peoples Ranch, outside of Monroe.

The group submitted numerous public records requests about those and other issues. The county Prosecuting Attorney’s Office reports tallying more than 275 records requests in all.

In March 2013, the group filed a lawsuit accusing the county of violating the state Public Records Act by failing to respond to four of its records requests “in a timely manner.” The lawsuit sought access to any non-exempt records that hadn’t been provided, plus attorney fees and any other relief the court deemed appropriate.

The suit sought public records maintained by the county planning and public works departments, the County Council, the county executive’s office and the prosecuting attorney’s office.

The county admitted no fault. Paperwork memorializing the agreement characterizes the settlement as an issue of “doubtful and disputed claims.”

Under state law, a judge can fine a public agency up to $100 per day for every record that a requestor is denied the right to inspect or copy.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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