County awarded $10,000 in public records lawsuit

Edward Kilduff of Lopez Island was ordered to pay San Juan County $10,000 for “bringing an improper lawsuit” to remove a public official and “recovery of attorney fees for defending against a frivolous lawsuit.”

In June 2016, Kilduff sued the county in an attempt to recover penalties and attorney fees and to remove Councilman Jamie Stephens from his seat.

According to lawsuit documents the case was filed by Kilduff because of public employees’ alleged failure to produce public records as required by the state’s public records act (RCW 42.56) and that Stephens allegedly occupied two incompatible public offices. In addition to being a councilman, Stephens also serves as the county’s public records officer.

On Dec. 7, a Skagit County Superior Court Judge Brian Stiles ruled that Kilduff would owe the county rather than be paid by it.

San Juan County Prosecuting Attorney Randy Gaylord said that in 2015, Kilduff requested public records from the county. The county provided documents to Kilduff and Gaylord said that he told him to contact the county if he wanted more information. Kilduff then sued the county almost a year later for failure to produce all of the requested public records. In May 2015, Kilduff submitted a written public records request for all documents relating to a San Juan Island property’s wetland evaluation by County Manager Mike Thomas.

The lawsuit said that Kilduff submitted the public records request because he is a contributor for the Trojan Heron, a website that states it is a “Citizen journalism [blog] about environmental deception in the San Juan Islands of Washington state.”

“In an unusual twist, the public records lawsuit included a claim to oust Jamie Stephens from office,” wrote Gaylord in a press release. “The ouster claim is called a quo warranto proceeding. Only two people may file such a proceeding: the Prosecuting Attorney and a person who has a reason to believe he or she is entitled to the office. Mr. Kilduff was neither.”

Jeffrey Myers of Olympia represented San Juan County; Stephens was represented by San Juan County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Jonathan Cain; and Nicholas Power of Friday Harbor and Michele Earl-Hubbard of Seattle represented Kilduff.

“Ms. Earl-Hubbard and I bring tough cases against governments, and we will continue to bring these hard cases,” Power said. “We respectfully disagree with the court’s ruling, and we will appeal to ensure the transparency and accountability of our government.”

In May 2016, San Juan County settled a public records lawsuit with Kilduff, paying him $17,000. The county claimed that the public records request “fell between the cracks,” and when it was discovered, 300 days had passed. During litigation, Gaylord felt the court was going to rule favorably for the county because Kilduff had not followed the required protocol before bringing legal action. However, because Kilduff allegedly said he would appeal the ruling, the county chose to offer him $7,000 in penalties and $10,000 for attorney fees in order to avoid an appeal.

Also in May 2016, the county settled a public records lawsuit brought by former SJC building official John Geniuch, paying him $85,000 plus $5,814 in attorney’s fees. And in a lawsuit that concluded in January 2016, the Skagit court awarded Sheryl Albritton $53,444 following a public records complaint.