Category Archives: Public Records

Bainbridge records ruling a cautionary tale for Port Orchard

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.”

Public records battle in Tacoma

In Tacoma a contract between a cable company and a network has opened a public records dispute.

The (Tacoma) News Tribune wants to see the contract between Fisher Communications and Click Cable, which delivers cable service in the Tacoma area.

Since Click is owned by the city, the News Tribune and the Tacoma city attorney argue that the contract with Fisher and other broadcasters is public. Four broadcasters are suing to block a News Tribune public record request to see the contract between Fisher and Click, saying the revelation would harm the broadcasters’ negotiation position nationwide.

This all stems from a dispute that for a while had Click customers unable to watch Fisher content, including KOMO. You should read the TNT piece I linked above to get the details about this particular dispute. Suffice to say that I can’t think of any other city contract that escapes the sunshine of the state’s public records law. And I know that when I did a story recently on a labor dispute related to Bremerton’s Burwell parking garage, contracts and subcontracts would have been available to me.

I’ve made a request from an expert as to what I could expect if I were to make this kind of document request to a private cable company. I’ll update when I have more info.

A moment in time with the Belfair Water District

For months we have been covering the unlikely events that have been happening with the Belfair Water District. I say, “unlikely,” because what I had experienced mostly over the phone was unlike any other government I have ever covered. I remember a city councilman chastising residents over their characterization of him. I remember a city worker publicly accusing a city councilman of trying to get him fired. I saw the hysterics at the health care town halls. I had a conversation with a city councilman once when he told me how much he hated (his words) another member of the council. Yet never had I experienced the kind of dysfunction I was hearing about over the phone and in court documents like the stuff I was hearing from the tiny little water district on the Hood Canal.

The best stuff, I was hearing from participants and reading in Arla Shepherd’s reporting in the Belfair Herald, was at the board meetings. The current board will be changed in January. I wanted to see the district’s board in action before two of the commissioners left. I got my chance on Tuesday. From the beginning of the meeting what I saw was more than I had ever seen

I was probably about 5 minutes late to the meeting. I admit it was because I had never been there and quite frankly I thought it was somewhere else along Highway 3. Fortunately for me Mike Pope, the commissioner who for now is on the outs with the other two commissioners and with the utility’s manager, was arriving just as I was. I would have missed some early fireworks had he been there on time.

John Phillips, who ran the meeting Tuesday, tried to move beyond commissioner reports, but Pope wanted to make a statement. Pope wanted a manager’s report stricken. The report accused Pope of not complying with a public records request for a tape recording he made of a training meeting. Pope said the tape did not exist. Dave Tipton, district manager, said that Pope had probably destroyed the tape. In fact, the date requested had the wrong year on it. Pope said, “That’s not my problem. You wrote down the wrong date. Phillips responded, “You knew what we meant.”

The commissioners then addressed an agreement Tipton negotiated with the Mary E. Theler Community Center & Wetlands in Belfair. Phillips was unhappy with the terms. I’m not sure if it was over the amount or that the center wouldn’t be paying it all right away. “If they’re solvent, pay their bill.” Pope said something I didn’t catch, something Tipton said was not true. Phillips continued to protest the agreement. “We had every right to turn off the water. Isn’t it kind of stupid hiring a lawyer a for a stupid little water bill,” Phillips said. Tipton said it was the best solution for both parties, because it settles it. It was approved 3-0, which I think may have been the only unanimous vote of the meeting.

The commissioners then discussed moving their financial account away from Kitsap Bank. Tipton had received quotes from several banks, in the end suggesting a move to Columbia Bank. Pope asked why not stay local and asked where Columbia Bank was based. Tipton responded, “They’re not local so you tell me. You know more than I do.” The bank’s fees were cheaper than Kitsap Bank. Pope asked why the district was looking to leave Kitsap Bank at all. Phillips said it had something to do with Kitsap Bank’s service. Pope pressed, and Tipton said, “I don’t really choose to badmouth a local business in a public meeting.”

There was a proposal to sell some truck bins the district wasn’t using to someone who asked about them and negotiated a price. Pope said the district might get paid more by mentioning their availability in the district’s monthly newsletter. “You can use ‘The Aqueduct.’ It’s been used for other stuff.”

A resident who received an inordinately high water bill (by more than $1,000) one month appealed her bill. The board denied her. Harry Hatlem, a commissioner, told her “The water went through the meter.” The meter was tested after she questioned the bill and the district found it was working properly. She found no leaks.

Phillips said the board asked for volunteers to work on the district’s budget, but no one called. Pope said that was because the number advertised went to a fax line.

There was a lengthy discussion about a property that had not been billed for a year because of a fire. The property was to begin getting billed again. There was a short argument.

Phillips asked Pope if he wanted to work on something. (I’m sorry. I don’t have the details of what it was.) Pope declined. Phillips said Pope hadn’t done anything in three years on the board. “You don’t want to do it?” Phillips said. “Not as long as you’re on the board, John,” Pope responded.

Tipton then reported on a proposed temporary fix to a water pressure problem in one part of the district’s infrastructure. It’s a short term fix for a problem that has to get a long-term solution eventually, but if it works it would buy the district some time. (I may have this item out of chronological order. I wasn’t taking copious notes on this issue when it came up, until it became part of the larger dispute.)

Public comment begins. It is worth noting that the rules for public comment are on a sheet of paper attached to two walls. People are required to sign in, name a topic, and they are limited to two minutes. Public comment ends after 15 minutes.

Greg Overstreet, attorney for three different parties who sued the district on public records issues and won a combined $82,000 on it, addressed the board. He made the case, and provided written documentation breaking it out, that the clients made no money on the suit. They were reimbursed small sums for their expenses, but almost all the $82,000 went to Overstreet’s firm. Now, I don’t remember seeing outright claims of enrichment of the plaintiffs in this case, though I have seen implications. This is a touchy point for them and for their attorney. Overstreet said to the board that he provided the documents to show how the money was disbursed. “If you were to tell people that my clients made money, you would be sued for defamation,” Overstreet said. Phillips said there is a perception the clients made money. They discussed a little how that perception happened. At one point Tipton said “His two minutes are up.” When Overstreet was finished Pope took issue with Tipton, who Pope said had muttered, “Rot in Hell” toward Overstreet. Tipton said “I didn’t it say to him.” Overstreet asked Tipton if he would say it loud and to his face. Tipton declined. Overstreet called Tipton a “coward.” Phillips said that was slander. “You are a lawyer. You should know better.” Overstreet said Tipton is a “public figure,” citing Supreme Court decisions.

Next up was Greg Waggett, one of the plaintiffs. Phillips asked, “OK, Ken, what are you going to say? Are you going to preach to the choir?” Waggett and Ken VanBuskirk, another litigant, asked for an apology for what was written about them in “The Aqueduct.” (I wouldn’t guess they’ll get one. In fact, the December issue could be a dandy.) Waggett made an issue of the district’s failures with public records. After some give and take it was clear to the audience of about a dozen that “They (Tipton, Phillips and Hatlem) haven’t learned a thing,” from the records dispute. Pope said, “They won’t because it’s not their money.”

Bonnie Pope, Mike Pope’s wife and one of the litigants, again asked for an apology. When Phillips didn’t respond, she asked if he was going to. “I don’t have to respond to none of your questions,” he answered. (By the way, it is not unusual for a member of a council or board to not directly answer a citizen’s question. As a courtesy, though, they often say they’ll look into the issue. And it’s not unheard of on something like this for a board member to answer to some degree. Technically in parliamentary settings, though, Phillips is correct.)

They went to executive session, during which time I chatted with some from the audience. Bonnie Pope, who said she lived her whole life in the area, said she has had longtime friends asking her if she made money on the lawsuit, friends who admitted they thought she had. That is a sore sport for her and the other litigants, because they have all said they do not relish costing their friends and neighbors money, but the district did not comply.

Mike Pope stormed out of the executive session saying, “They’re attacking me in there and they refuse to make it public.” The board returned to the dais and Pope asked that his personnel issue be held in public. The other board members said the issue wasn’t about him. Phillips declared the meeting over.

“Thank God,” Mike Pope said, to which Phillips responded, “Mike you’ve got to learn some civility.”

“I was physically restrained from leaving that door,” Pope said of the executive session.

“Mr. Pope’s a liar” Tipton said.

There was another testy exchange between Phillips and Overstreet in which Phillips asked if Overstreet was going to bill his clients for attending Tuesday’s meeting. This was when someone suggested turning off the tape recorder used for the meeting.

I spoke with Phillips and Tipton and Hatlem for a bit after the meeting. Phillips said we hadn’t been kind to the district. He was suggesting, I think, that we were hard on the district because Overstreet represented us before. He made reference to David Nelson, our editor, having his face on Overstreet’s website as a client. (It may have been there before. It isn’t now. Nor is the Kitsap Sun listed as one of the Allied Law Firm’s clients.) He also thought we were writing stories because Nelson demanded it. I informed him otherwise.

Tipton showed me a map and outlined what the pressure issue was. He clearly relished explaining that issue and said as much, professing a disdain for the political stuff. He also said the issue inside the executive session was not about Mike Pope. He and Phillips also said the move away from Kitsap Bank was because the bank was slow to release the district’s money after the district had paid off its penalty to the public records litigants.

Phillips gave me a water district pen (pictured above). I turned it down at first, then accepted it. I left the district offices into the rain and headed back. It’s probably best I leave it at that.

About that Kitsap Sun public records request on KCCHA

Today the Kitsap Sun begins a four-part series on the Kitsap County Consolidated Housing Authority (now Housing Kitsap), and how it nearly folded in 2008. That it nearly folded is not news. We reported on that as events unfolded. In the series, we attempt to give the back story, and to provide a comprehensive retrospective, now that the agency has moved on from its troubled past.

At the bottom of this post, you’ll find links to some of the key public records we accessed in the course of our research, including e-mails from elected officials and others, financial records and a meeting video.

The series, in the works for a year, tracks the housing authority’s financial woes related to its Harborside Condominium project and other factors, including the recession (days 1 and 2). The series moves on with a look at how the agency has gotten back on track and rededicated to its mission of affordable housing (day 3). Readers will also get a peek inside the lives of condo owners who reside in one of the most talked-about (and upscale) complexes in Kitsap County (day 4).

Delving into the cause of KCCHA’s financial meltdown, we found nothing illegal. We did find a culture of risk-taking within the agency that left it far more vulnerable than other Washington State housing authorities when the recession hit and the housing market imploded. The result is that public money will be paying off substantial debt on the private condo complex for what could be decades.

In the course of our research, we made public records requests for e-mails between and about housing authority board members and staff, financial records and a video of the 2005 meeting at which the county’s board of directors agreed to back a portion of financing on the condos.

State law provides for open access to public records. Three public records bills that would have made compliance with the law easier for local governments appear to be dead in the water in Olympia.

Without personally taking a position on the bills, I’d like to acknowledge the efforts of the public records officials who complied with our requests. The e-mail requests alone yielded well over 1,000 documents, each of which had to be reviewed for information to be redacted (as in attorney client privilege) before it was turned over to us.

The clerks and IT specialists who complied with our requests were just doing their jobs, as we were just doing ours in reporting the story. But it’s worth noting that the public’s access to records comes with a cost of time and energy within the agency asked to comply. That translates to public dollars. So the right to access public records is not one we at the Kitsap Sun take lightly.

Local governments and agencies complying with the Kitsap Sun’s public records request included: Housing Kitsap, the cities of Port Orchard, Bremerton, Poulsbo and Bainbridge Island, Kitsap County and Bremerton Kitsap Access Television.

In addition to our interviews conducted with elected officials, staff at Kitsap County and Housing Kitsap provided extensive information for the story.

Here are the public records:

KCCHA Condo Loan, Feb. 14, 2005
Condo Loan, Feb. 14, 2005
The Kitsap County Board of Commissioners on Feb. 14, 2005, entered into a contingent loan agreement with the Kitsap County Consolidated Housing Authority (now Housing Kitsap) to back a $22 million bond on the Harborside Condominiums.

KCCHA Condo Loan, Minutes, Feb. 14, 2005
Minutes of the Feb. 14, 2005 meeting of the Kitsap County Board of Commissioners, at which the board approved a contingent loan agreement with the Kitsap County Consolidated Housing Authority on the Harborside Condominium project. See item (8) a.

Video of Feb. 14, 2005 BOCC Meeting

KCCHA CondoConcerns, July 26, 2007
This is an e-mail from a couple who bought one of the Harborside Condominiums in Bremerton when the project was “just a dream.” Rick Shaver, the condo owner, writes to the contractor with multiple complaints about poor workmanship and delays. The e-mail is copied to Bremerton Mayor Cary Bozeman who forwards it to Kitsap County Consolidated Housing Authority Executive Director Norm McLoughlin. KCCHA was in charge of the projects. Bozeman writes, “You should be aware of this.”

KCCHA Operating Deficit, Jan., 2008
A financial summary for the Kitsap County Consolidated Housing Authority showing an operating deficit of nearly $300,000 per month.

KCCHA Spreadsheets, Nov., 2007 to April, 2008
Kitsap County Consolidated Housing Authority documents give financial “snapshots” of the agency’s fiscal profile from Nov., 2007 to April, 2008.

KCCHA bauer.eml, Aug. 29, 2008
This is an Aug. 29, 2008, e-mail from Kitsap County Commissioner Steve Bauer to a North Kitsap Fire and Rescue Chief in which Bauer shares the financial woes of Kitsap County Consolidated Housing Authority. Bauer writes that “the Bremerton (Harborside) condos are eating them alive.”

KCCHA countertop.complaint, Aug. 8, 2008
In this e-mail letter to Kitsap County Consolidated Housing Authority Executive Director Norm McLoughlin, condo owner, Patrick M. Rodgers complains about the material used in the countertops of his condo and threatens legal action if the problem is not remedied. The correct material was used, but the contractor applied the wrong finish, causing defects. All the countertops using this type of stone had to be replaced. The e-mail is copied to the agency’s board of directors.

KCCHA bauer.eml.Sept. 12, 08
Kitsap County Commissioner writes in a Sept. 12, 2008, e-mail to a financial consultant, that Kitsap County Consolidated Housing Authority Executive Director Norm McLoughlin has been using one of the agency’s lines of credit as a “private venture capital fund to cover ‘exploration’ of new ventures without telling the (housing authority’s) Board.”

KCCHA change/leadership, Oct. 2, 2008
In this e-mail exchange from early October 2008, among North Kitsap Commissioner Steve Bauer and the mayors of the North Kitsap cities of Poulsbo and Bainbridge Island, Bauer informs Kathryn Quade and Darlene Kordonowy that the county’s board of commissions wanted a “change of leadership” in the Kitsap County Consolidated Housing Authority.

KCCHA Next Steps, Oct. 9, 2008
In this e-mail exchange with members of the Kitsap County Consolidated Housing Authority Board of Directors, finance director Debbie Broughton lays out a fiscal strategy for keeping the agency from failing, as well as terms for her acceptance of the position of interim director. Last e-mail was sent just days before Executive Director Norm McLoughlin abruptly retired.

KCCHA mcloughlin retirement Oct. 14, 2008

This is an e-mail exchange between Port Orchard Mayor Lary Coppola, of the Kitsap County Consolidated Housing Authority Board of Directors, and attorney Will Patton of Foster Pepper law office, regarding the retirement agreement for Norm McLoughlin, the agency’s executive director. The agreement, copied to other members of the housing authority board, is in draft format and shows items under negotiation shortly before McLoughin announced his retirement. A draft of the press release that was to be sent upon announcement of his retirement is included in the e-mail.

KCCHA $40.5 million loan, May. 15, 2009
This is a copy of the loan agreement whereby Kitsap County bailed out Kitsap County Consolidated Housing Authority. Called the tri-party loan, it includes the Bank of America, lender, and provides for refinancing of debt, including more than $30 million related to the Harborside Condominiums.

KCCHA debt policy, May 18, 2009
This is a policy on debt approved by the Kitsap County Board of Commissioners days after they approved a $40.5 million bailout for the Kitsap County Consolidated Housing Authority. The policy set more strict standards for the county on contingent loan agreements, such as the one it entered into with KCCHA in 2005 on the Harborside Condominium project.