San Juan County sued for alleged withholding of public record files

A lawsuit filed Oct. 9 against San Juan County and county prosecutor Randall Gaylord alleges that the county and its employees violated Washington State’s Public Records Act.

“This case is about elected officials and public employees conspiring to conceal improper governmental conduct from the public,” reads the introduction to the 293-page complaint that was filed in Skagit County Superior Court. According toNicholas Power, a lawyer for plaintiff Sheryl Albritton, the complaint was filed in Skagit County due to the fact that San JuanCounty is one of the defendants.

The detailed complaint is the latest in a series of memorandums from prosecuting attorney Randall Gaylord produced inMarch and San Juan County Council in June concerning permit applications for a building near wetlands on a Portland Fair property and allegations of improper governmental action. Both memorandums deemed the issue resolved, with the council stating that no improper governmental action had occurred. Gaylord’s memorandum said the wetland delineation process was not followed, but that “no further action is needed to comply with the law.”

The complaint states that a public records request was submitted by the plaintiff March 15 requesting “copies of all documents within enforcement file PCINQ-15-0003 related to ERTS# 654194,” the file regarding the wetlands information and information regarding the process. The complaint alleges that at least nine relevant documents were removed from the enforcement file and moved to a different file titled “Chris Laws personal information IGA 1/21/2015.”

On January 18, the plaintiff of the suit, Sheryl Albritton, reported to the Department of Ecology “that she believed that development activity was being performed in violation of the San Juan County’s Critical Area Ordinance and that County management directed staff to approve the activity without proper review.”

According to the complaint, the report caught the attention of Code Enforcement Officer Chris Laws, who became “troubled by what appeared to him to be evidence of improper governmental action.” It goes on to say Laws filed the IGA with the prosecuting attorney’s office, who eventually told Laws to remove files, and “intentionally withheld public records from Ms. Albritton.”

The lawsuit requests that the county and Gaylord explain why they withheld the public records Albritton requested, an order to supply the records, an award of penalties of $100 per day, per record for each day they were withheld, and an award ofall costs of the suit.

“Washington law guarantees citizens access to public records so that the public can monitor their government and expose and rectify illegitimate actions of government like the ones that Ms. Albritton alleges in her complaint,” Power said in a written statement to the Journal of the lawsuit. Powers is also the attorney for another suit against the county that alleges over-billing and misuse of building fees.

The county and prosecuting attorney have 20 days after being served to submit an official response to the complaint.

“We believe this public records lawsuit has come about as the result of a misunderstanding,” San Juan County ProsecutingAttorney Randall Gaylord said in a written statement to the Journal. “These lawsuits are expensive for both sides. The county wants the public to know that it has a procedure for resolving questions about public records requests without expensive litigation.”