For a guy who is the plaintiff in a lawsuit against the County Council, Tim Paxton is remarkably laid back about the whole affair. Donning a sharp baseball cap, he sits across to me and explained how it all started.
“I had done some work with Greg Overstreet (no relation to Rep. Overstreet) on my previous disclosure requests. When I was investigating Dan Pike’s Hatch Act violations, Overstreet helped me out. Well, flash-forward a bit. I get a call from Breann Beggs, he and Overstreet are looking to make an example of County governments that break the Open Public Meetings Act, but they needed a plaintiff. So I signed on.”
So what exactly did they do wrong? “The county council received a public records request from a citizen living on Lummi island pertaining to the Ferry dispute. Instead of, you know, filling the request, they emailed each other about what their options are. By sharing a whole string of emails, they were having a secret meeting about whether or not they were going to break the law by not filling the public records request,” said Paxton.
This is not the first time the County Council has gotten in trouble over this issue. Sam Crawford especially consistently uses his private email for public business and has been reprimanded. See my previous reporting on this subject here, and then again here and here.
I asked Paxton why a lawsuit was necessary to make the point that they are breaking the law, considering the State Auditor already found them guilty in December of 2011. “The Council has already shown that it is willing to ignore the law in these situations. The only result of the Auditor’s decision was a memo that ‘strongly recommended’ that the Council not do that again.” It should be noted that when that memo came out, Barbara Brenner stated that she would keep doing whatever she liked and would ignore the memo. You can read the State Auditor’s letter (which was described as a “yellow light” not a “red light” in terms of seriousness) right here.
“There is this perception,” Paxton said. “That if you go up and testify before the council, that logic will prevail. That’s just not true. The only thing they respond to is a lawsuit.” The lawsuit itself is pretty tame. It only asks that the Council admit that they are wrong, and pay any of the plaintiff’s legal fees. Right now that is just a couple thousand dollars. “There is no teeth in the Public Meetings Act,” Paxton contends, “so it falls to active citizens to ensure that our council do the right thing.”
County Councilman Ken Mann took issue with this lawsuit and directly responded to it on the Herald Politics blog calling the lawsuit, “This might be the most pathetic, transparently self-serving and self-indulgent, sanctimonious, hypocritical, and senseless lawsuit of all time.” He had previously expressed frustration over having to fill public records requests, and continued his statement, “If anybody bothered to read the emails that the State Auditor commented on, they would find that they are eminently boring. Nothing juicy, nothing secret, nothing nefarious. They are a public record after all – so if we wanted to be “secret” that is the stupidest place to do it.”
Paxton, having read this response, offered up this quip. “It is breaking the law, their opinion about whether or not it is juicy or nefarious doesn’t matter, we don’t get to see it and decide for ourselves.”
You, the reader at home, can judge for yourself by reading the three emails here, here and here. In my opinion, they aren’t terribly controversial, however there is still the issue of doing the right thing in response to public records requests.
But Mann wasn’t done, he aimed his fire at Paxton himself, “As for Mr. Paxton’s agenda or goals, nobody has any idea what he wants. Money? Political statement? Fame? Glory? He wants us to admit guilt? We already did that.” Which is not entirely true. The State Auditor found that you were guilty of breaking the law, that’s a little different than coming right out and saying, yes, we were doing something illegal.
Paxton responded to the other charge. “This effort is costing me time and money, all I wanted was to draw attention to their illegal activity. Ken responding only furthers that goal.” Paxton stressed the importance of a strong public records and open meetings laws. “We need to be able to check up on our public officials.”
Continuing the thread of comments on the Herald blog, Ken Mann made an interesting point. He said, “I love public disclosure laws. You have never heard me complain about their existence. In the right hands much good does come from them. We absolutely need those laws and need concerned citizens who are willing to spend the time to implement them. What I deplore is the *abuse* of those laws for harassment or personal financial gain.”
Which is interesting considering that he was quite literally complaining about public records laws back in 2010 on his blog. So it comes down to the basic conflict between common sense use of public records requests (asking for emails relating to the Lummi Ferry negotiations), the governments efforts to avoid disclosure (the council’s secret email meetings) and the public’s right to know.
It should be noted that Paxton did a whole series of records requests relating to Dan Pike, and even went so far as to publish his divorce records online. The Political Junkie, who clearly is not a big Pike fan, thought that this was way over the line. Objecting to campaign tactics, public policy, and the like is one thing, but delving into their personal lives is a bit beyond the pale. I was handed a couple of big stories during the last campaign cycle that I decided to shelve because they involved the personal lives of those involved. In this world of blogging, it is important to have clear ethical standards.
But back to the interview. As we were wrapping up, Tim Paxton made a very good point. “If they are making decisions about whether or not to release public documents in secret, what other decisions are they making that we don’t know about. Decisions related to the coal port perhaps? This is why we cannot let these things slide.”