When a King County Superior Court judge ordered the city of Shoreline to pay $538,555 in penalty and legal costs to resolve a seven-year lawsuit over public records, many taxpayers raised their eyebrows.
After all, the city officials who used bad judgment won’t pay the bill, the people will. And that thought tends to bring out feelings of anger aimed at those who sue to obtain public records.
That anger is misguided. The majority of those seeking public records are doing so for legitimate reasons — whether news media or citizens — and are ultimately ensuring the public has appropriate access to information from the people’s government.
Public officials, such as those in Shoreline, are not doing their jobs when they take unreasonable stands to block the release of information to protect themselves or the government from humiliation or worse.
In the Shoreline case, the information was being sought by Beth and Doug O’Neil after the content of an email criticizing the Shoreline City Council was read aloud at a meeting and incorrectly attributed to Beth O’Neil. She wanted to know who wrote the email and requested a copy.
They received the email but not the metadata, the digital records that provide details about a file such as who wrote it, what computer it was written on and when it was created.
Four years later, in 2010, the state Supreme Court ruled metadata were subject to disclosure under the Public Records Act. But the city hired computer experts who searched for the original message and later testified it was lost, according to The Associated Press.
And that brings us to the $538,555 award by the judge — $438,555 for legal costs and $100,000 in damages.
Regardless of whether the dollar amount is appropriate, it is unfortunate it will cost taxpayers.
The blame must fall to the Shoreline officials who failed to follow the law and then, um, lost the metadata.
This decision (even though it will be certainly appealed) should make it clear to all public officials that the information created by and sent to governments is not their information, it is ours.