October 29, 2001
King County to pay damages in public disclosure lawsuit
by Jeanette Knutson
Kenmore residents Bonnie and Dan Olsen were awarded over $46,000 in damages after taking King County to court for refusing to hand over a memo they requested under state public disclosure law. Over half the judgment went for attorney fees and administrative costs, said Mr. Olsen. The penalty, $20 a day for each of the 867 days the county withheld the document, will help defray some of the couple's earlier appeal expenses, he said.
"We were pleased to get that much coverage of our previous costs," said Olsen.
Their lawyer, Jennifer Dold, said the reason for the hefty award, four times the minimum allowed, hinged on the judge's finding "the county acted on bad faith in withholding the documents."
A positive result of the case, said Olsen, is that "because it was a Washington state Court of Appeals decision, the ruling is published in case law. All citizens can use it should they find resistance from government in obtaining documents they need. We're really pleased that we could do that."
In January of 1999, the Olsen's interest in the LakePointe development, a 45-acre residential/commercial project proposed for a site near their home, lead them to request of King County all documents used or considered in the making of a particular traffic-related decision.
This decision, in essence, gave the go-ahead to the traffic portion of the project in the form of a special exception, even though a King County road engineer involved with the project deemed the traffic "infeasible" at the intersection of 68th Avenue Northeast and the proposed LakePointe Way, the future gateway to the project.
The county obliged the Olsen's request by handing over 13 documents. Yet it withheld one.
At the time, the Olsens did not know anything was withheld.
But in November of 1999, Bonnie, while going through LakePointe documents in Kenmore, discovered a memo set out in language nearly identical to the special exception they were questioning. The couple thought the special exception was probably based on this found memo.
The Olsens asked King County Executive Ron Sims to investigate the county's failure to make a key document available.
He responded by saying, in short, that the information contained in the memorandum "in no way influenced the preceding year's decision to allow an exception."
In April of 2000 the couple took their case to Superior Court, asking that the county be ordered to produce all appropriate documents used or considered in the formulation of the special exception. The county argued that the decision had been made long before the memo in question had been written. And the county won.
Then the Olsens appealed the court ruling and this time they won.
In June 2001, the state Court of Appeals ruled that King County violated the Public Disclosure Act when it refused to make available the memorandum in response to the Olsen's specific request.
"This decision casts a cloud over the LakePointe project because of the bad faith the county demonstrated. It makes the development all the more suspect. We will continue to monitor it closely, to make comments and requests as needed," said Olsen.
"It occurs to me," he said, "that the repaving project along Bothell Way, which causes severe delays on S.R. 522 ‹ just for repaving ‹ is a foreshadowing of the traffic volumes the planned LakePointe project would produce if it were completed as planned."