Monroe finally releases e-mails on ethics panel discussions in 2005

MONROE — Meredith Mechling didn’t think it would take five years and a lawsuit to get a dozen e-mails from the city.

But it did.

Earlier this week, Mechling finally received those long-sought e-mails, originally sent among city officials in March 2005.

Mechling knows the reason she first requested the e-mails now borders on irrelevant. She was worried about attacks on the ethics board, which survives to this day.

She sees worth in her pursuit of the documents, however. Her case can help keep government accountable, while the e-mails themselves provide insight into how the city was operating in 2005, she said.

“Even if it takes five years, I think it was well worth doing,” she said.

The release of the documents puts Mechling’s long-running open records case against the city one step closer to its conclusion.

The city remains on the hook for Mechling’s attorney fees, along with penalties for withholding the documents.

Mechling offered to settle the case for $192,950 in November, a price the city then called inflated. A Snohomish Superior Court judge ultimately may set a dollar amount later this year or next.

Mechling sued for the release of the e-mails after the city denied them to her by citing attorney-client privilege and privacy issues. Some e-mails were sent from personal accounts.

The state Court of Appeals ruled 3-0 on Oct. 26 that the city was wrong. The e-mails had to be released.

The City Council held a closed-door discussion of the case at its Tuesday night meeting. Following that executive session, the council voted 6-0 to give Mechling the documents. Councilman David Kennedy was absent from the vote.

City attorney Angela Belbeck is handling the case for Monroe. She said the release could help the city avoid higher penalties for withholding documents.

“It was an option for the council to consider,” she said.

The e-mails were sent between City Councilman Chad Minnick and city administrator Jim Southworth, both of whom have since left office, and Phil Olbrechts, who remains the city’s primary attorney.

Minnick and Southworth were consulting with Olbrechts about holding a vote that would make changes to the city’s ethics code ordinance, a hot-button issue at the time.

Mechling said the March 2005 e-mails show the city attorney mixed political and legal advice in an unsuitable way. She pointed to an e-mail from Olbrechts, where he indicated it would look bad if the newly formed ethics board was disbanded after it got a complaint.

“I hope it’s not that way now,” she said.

Olbrechts said his remarks focused on legal matters, and only offered common-sense perspective to frame that advice.

“Council had to understand that it would be pretty awful to get the ethics board geared up and going, and then two weeks later, disband them,” he said.

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

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