MONROE — An open government activist scored an expensive win against City Hall in her long-running battle for documents.
The state Court of Appeals issued a ruling Monday, saying Monroe officials and a Snohomish Superior Court judge erred when they deprived Meredith Mechling of e-mails
The e-mails themselves may be of little use. Mechling was investigating a threat to the city ethics board, a topic since resolved.
However, since Monroe violated the state’s public records law, it could be on the hook for attorney fees and other penalties, a sharp slap on the wrist.
“Did the city accomplish some kind of a goal by withholding information?” asked Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government. “Maybe so, but it was at quite a price.”
Mechling’s bills are at least $80,000, said her attorney, William Crittenden of Seattle. That doesn’t include other expenses: the cost of Monroe’s legal staff and penalties for holding onto the information.
A few points in the case linger. Monroe officials said they could appeal the decision, but haven’t decided on a course of action. Additionally, the amount owed to Mechling will be set by a judge.
The issues began in March 2005. Mechling sought e-mails between council members related to the ethics board, then a hot topic. She feared the council was debating the board online.
After collecting e-mails, city staff withheld some, citing attorney-client privilege, and blacked out information in others, since they were sent from personal accounts.
On both counts, they made a mistake, the three-judge panel ruled.
The use of personal accounts to discuss public business highlights a big lesson in the case, Nixon said.
“They should figure out from this that that’s not a good idea, and they should use government resources for government purposes,” he said.
Mechling is the wife of former Councilman Marc Mechling and current treasurer for Mayor Donnetta Walser’s campaign. She has not discussed the particulars of the case with City Council, staff or Walser, she said.
Robert Zimmerman, Walser’s opponent in the Nov. 3 general election, questioned their connection, however. Zimmerman, who was still a councilman in 2005, called the decision a potentially positive step that could open up government.
“It was very unclear about what should or should not have been done,” he said of using personal accounts. “This is a learning experience for council.”
Walser said the city has improved its ability to deal with public records since 2005. She said she didn’t play a part in Mechling’s decision to pursue the case.
“Whether you agree with it or not, obviously she (Mechling) does what she thinks is best, and she knows the system,” Walser said.
Mechling saw worth in the ruling, even though the city stifled the e-mails when they were relevant.
“Obviously when it takes four years or more to get the records you ask for, it makes the information of much less value,” Mechling said. “So at this point, it’s more a victory for people in the future.”
Andy Rathbun: 425-339-3455, firstname.lastname@example.org.