Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Spokane County settles public-records case for a whopping $400,000

Posted By on Tue, Mar 20, 2012 at 4:58 PM

It all began back in 2005, when the Neighborhood Alliance’s Bonnie Mager (before she was commissioner) made a public-record request of a seating chart, one that implied that Commissioner Phil Harris’s son Steve had been saved a position before he was hired. It was a simple accusation of nepotism. It exploded into a series of court cases – questioning how thoroughly Spokane County had to search for public records and how long they had to save hard drives – that climbed all the way to the state Supreme Court.

Spokane County lost, big time.

“The Supreme Court, well, they pretty much lambasted the county,” county risk manager Steve Bartel says. With a Lincoln County court poised to assess an unpredictable total of penalties and attorney fees, the county made the choice to settle.

Back in September, the Spokesman-Review estimated the penalty could be more than $100,000. They settled for four times that.

“I’ve been told by [public-records lawyer] Greg Overstreet it’s the third largest [records settlement or judgment] in history,”says Breean Beggs, attorney on the case. It was 2,385 days from the record request to mediation, Beggs says. The daily fees begin to add up to a lot of liability.

Why did Spokane County settle for such high a cost? Bartel explains that the cost of fighting the case could have been much worse.

“We had an estimate of about a minimum of $650,000,” Bartel says. Fortunately, Bartel explains, the county won’t have to pay the full cost of the case. They’re insured through a shared risk pool with other counties and only have to pay a $250,000 deductible. The county had already earmarked $250,000 of risk-management funds for precisely that purpose.

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