The city of Port Orchard took note of a November Kitsap County Superior Court ruling that the city of Bainbridge Island must turn over personal hard drives of three city council members in response to a public records request.
In light of the ruling, the Port Orchard City Council on Tuesday considered a draft policy to formalize the understanding that personal emails of elected officials related to city business are public records.
A staff report from City Clerk Brandy Rinearson to the council also cites as a cautionary tale a 2012 records request from former City Clerk Patti Kirkpatrick, who was let go in early February of 2012 by incoming Mayor Tim Matthes. Within two weeks of her sacking, Kirkpatrick submitted her request for “all emails” back through 2010 for former Mayor Lary Coppola, Matthes and certain department heads, including those to and from council members.
City staff partially filled Kirkpatrick’s request and on May 10, 2012, said the first installment was available for pickup, but she never showed and did not respond to a letter saying the request would be closed on June 11, 2012, if the city did not hear further from her. (Kirkpatrick did not respond to a request for comment emailed to her Tuesday by the Kitsap Sun.)
Had Kirkpatrick pursued the request, it would have generated an estimated 300,000 emails — enough to fill up approximately 15 CDs. A scouring of data systems for emails that met the criteria of the request would have included elected officials’ personal computers.
Rinearson said she had a good working relationship with her predecessor, but she never learned why Kirkpatrick made the request. No lawsuit against the city ever came from it. Kirkpatrick later in 2012 went to work for the city of Pacific and was fired in February 2013 by Cy Sun, embattled mayor of that troubled city. Kirkpatrick told KIRO radio “she had no idea what she was getting into.”
Rinearson does not dispute that Kirkpatrick had a right to the records, she just wants an official policy guaranteeing she can collect any emails that aren’t directly within her control and produce them in a timely way to protect the city from a suit such as Bainbridge faces. Rinearson, a member of the Washington Association of Public Records Officers, also is the city’s risk manager.
In the Bainbridge lawsuit, three council members — Steve Bonkowski, David Ward and former councilwoman Debbie Lester — are alleged by two community activists to have used their personal email accounts to conduct city business, in violation of a city policy. Althea Paulson, a political blogger, and Bob Fortner, a self-proclaimed community watchdog, earlier this year made records requests for correspondence between the city’s utility committee chairwoman and other city officials.
The two allege that the city and the three council members did not fully disclose personal emails in a timely way. Judge Jeanette Dalton dismissed the council members themselves from the lawsuit but held the city accountable to produce the records. Her ruling on whether public records laws were violated is to come on Friday.
Unlike Bainbridge, which prohibits use of council members’ personal email accounts, Port Orchard doesn’t have a formal policy on how to handle elected officials personal emails. Council members have been advised on a number of occasions that their personal emails related to city business can be considered public records.
“My concern is this year we’ve had an increase in citizens wanting personal emails,” said City Clerk Brandy Rinearson, who is in charge of wrangling records “responsive” to requests. That’s true whether they’re official city emails or emails sent to or from a personal account.
“So I’m at the mercy of someone providing that document to me in a reasonable amount of time,” Rinearson said.
State law requires agencies to respond within five days on the status of a request but the law is vague on time frames within which installations of large email requests should be delivered.
“Bainbridge Island had a policy that got them into trouble,” Rinearson said. “We need to have certain precautions in place. … At least if we go into litigation, then we can say we followed our policy.”