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Lawsuits target Clark County, Clark College over public records law

A resident of Washington’s Island County recently targeted Clark County and Clark College, alleging that they violated the state’s public records law. So far, he’s had one victory.

On June 4, Eric Hood signed a settlement agreement with the county in a lawsuit he filed in February that alleged the county failed to comply with the state’s public records law. As part of the settlement, obtained through a public records request, Clark County agreed to pay $18,000 to Hood in exchange for him dropping his lawsuit. The agreement specifies that it is not an admission of liability by the county.

Local media accounts show that Hood has brought multiple legal actions against other local governments over public records law, resulting in similar settlements. Most recently, Hood filed a lawsuit on Thursday against Clark College alleging the college failed to comply with the law, which allows the public to obtain documents from local and state government agencies.

Hood’s motives and interests are not clear. He declined an interview request from The Columbian and provided a partial response to questions sent over email, instead citing large sections of the Washington Public Records Act.

“I have two questions that I hope you will pursue,” he wrote. “Why do many government agencies use taxpayer money to defend their obvious violations of the PRA? Why do they use taxpayer money on lobbying efforts to make government even less transparent?”

Clark County lawsuit

In February, Hood filed a lawsuit against Clark County in Cowlitz County Superior Court. Hood, who is not an attorney, represented himself in the lawsuit and amended the complaint in May. He argued that the county violated state law by failing to adequately respond to his February 2018 request for emails and letters regarding the Washington State Auditor’s Office “June 2016 Examination Report.”

According to the complaint, Hood and a county employee corresponded seeking to clarify his request. In the exchange, Hood provided the report number used by the state auditor’s office. After another exchange of emails in May, a representative of the county wrote that the documents had been added to its public records portal and were available for review.

However, according to the amended complaint filed in May, Clark County produced documents during the discovery process that were not provided to Hood as part of his public records request.

The complaint states that Clark County failed to respond within the five days required by the public records law to his February 2018 request. It further states that the county denied Hood’s request, made other unlawful delays and failed to have proper policies and training in place regarding the state’s public records law.

The county does not appear to have filed a formal response contesting Hood’s lawsuit. Chief Civil Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Emily Sheldrick declined to comment.

On June 5, Hood and Amanda Migchelbrink, Clark County deputy prosecuting attorney, signed an order to dismiss the case. The day before, Hood and the county agreed to the $18,000 settlement.

Clark College lawsuit

On July 29, Hood filed a lawsuit against Clark College in Clark County Superior Court. Christopher Taylor, an Olympia attorney, is representing Hood in the case.

According to the lawsuit, Hood emailed a college employee identified as the “Public Records Officer” on Aug. 7, 2018, requesting communications and other records related to a 2015 state audit of the college. The lawsuit states that Hood received a response from the college on Aug. 24 with links to pages on the websites of the state auditor and the Office of Financial Management, but no attachments or enclosures from the college. Hood followed up with another employee who stated that the links are the “extent of the records,” according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit claims that the college violated state law by not responding to Hood’s request within five business days and failing to produce additional responsive records while not claiming exemptions allowed under the law. The lawsuit also faults the college for not adopting rules to provide full access to public records.

The lawsuit asks the court to compel Clark College to produce all non-exempt records to his request, pay for all court costs and attorney fees and award Hood a penalty for each day Hood wad denied access to the records.

In Washington, governments that improperly delay responses to requests for records can face financial penalties. Courts can award a requestor $5 to $100 for each day a government improperly delayed producing records.

Clark College hasn’t filed a response to the lawsuit, but Kelly Love, the college’s chief communications officer, responded with a brief statement:

“Clark College does not comment on active litigation. The college provides information to the general public in accordance with the law and believes the public should have access to information concerning the operation of government.”

Other lawsuits

According to a 2018 Associated Press story, Hood has filed at least two dozen similar lawsuits against school districts since 2012.

According to the story, the Mount Vernon School District agreed to pay $12,500 to Hood after filing a lawsuit. In 2016, the North Kitsap School District agreed to pay $30,000 to Hood after he sued to allege the district withheld documents related to an audit of its Alternative Learning Experience program, according to the Kitsap Sun. In 2010, a judge ordered the South Whidbey School District, his former employer, to pay him $7,150 after it didn’t produce requested documents fast enough, according to the Whidbey News-Times.

A 2016 story in the South Whidbey Record described Hood as “a self-appointed white knight of open government.”

Toby Nixon, president of Washington Coalition for Open Government, said in a text message that he’s only chatted with Hood a couple of times.


Source: https://www.columbian.com

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