County pays more than $22K in public records request lawsuit

  • Fri Dec 4th, 2015 5:39am

A Public Records Act lawsuit against San Juan County has been resolved, with the county paying $22,501 plus legal costs and attorney’s fees to plaintiff Sheryl Albritton, according to press releases from the offices of the attorneys working on the case.

The complaint, filed Oct. 9 in Skagit County Superior Court said the case “is about elected officials and public employees conspiring to conceal improper governmental conduct from the public,” and alleged a number of documents were withheld from a public records request.

San Juan County Prosecuting Attorney Randy Gaylord was originally listed along with San Juan County as a defendant, and was dismissed from the case as requested by the defending attorney.

“The maximum penalty we could get if we continued to litigate Ms. Albritton’s claim was about $18,000 dollars — that the county offered Ms. Albritton significantly more than the case was worth indicates how badly the county wanted this case to be over,” said plaintiff attorney Nick Power in a press release.

According to defense attorney Jeffrey Myers, the county arrived at the $22,501 amount after calculating the days from Albritton’s request of the documents until when the county handed them over.

In the press release from Myers’ office, it states the lawsuit is based on a “misunderstanding,” and that it was unclear in the initial request which documents Albritton was requesting.

“When we reviewed the lawsuit, it became clear that Ms. Albritton wanted more than just code enforcement records,” Myers said in the press release. “Our first step was to provide her with all the additional documents, including records about the Improper Governmental Action complaint which did not properly belong in the code enforcement file.”

The county press release states that they “identified mistakes,” which according to Myers was the issue of timeliness in the response to the public records request as well as omitted documents, including documents with handwritten notations.

Since the lawsuit, the county has made additions to the county’s public records response. San Juan County Councilmen Jamie Stephens is now the interim public records officer, and the county has issued a proviso to county departments stating that non-compliance with public records requests will impact their budgets.

According to the county’s press release, the county is investing in new software and training to “improve its responsiveness under the Public Records Act” to track requests.

“Unfortunately there are still huge transparency issues with our county government,” said plaintiff attorney Nick Powers in a press release about the Albritton lawsuit. “This is a step in the right direction, but there is still a lot of work to be done for the county’s government to be in compliance with state law.”

– By Anna V. Smith, Journal reporter