Despite a campaign promise for more government transparency, Olympia City Council candidate Judy Bardin is refusing to release some documents that are part of a public records request.
The city is trying to retrieve 19 records from Bardin, a former Olympia Planning Commission member who is running for City Council Position 2.
The roots of the public records request extend back to Bardin’s time on the Planning Commission. In 2014, she received a Key Award from the Washington Coalition for Open Government for blowing the whistle on private meetings between developers and fellow planning commissioners that had taken place earlier that year.
At the time, Bardin said the meetings compromised the commission’s integrity because one participant, developer Jim Morris, was interested in rezoning a site for commercial buildings in west Olympia.
However, two public records requests have since put Bardin on the defensive.
In March 2014, Olympia resident Matthew Green requested all communications since July 1, 2013, between the planning commissioners and some local developers.
In response, the city asked commissioners to provide any records covered by the request. Bardin notified the city that 19 of those records were covered by the request, but said she was exempt from disclosing those records, claiming they qualify as privileged communications.
The issue was further complicated when Olympia resident Jeanette Dickison filed a request earlier this year for the missing 19 records.
As a requirement of the Public Records Act, the city must review the records for possible redaction and determine whether they are exempt. The city asserts that if the records qualify as public records, then the records belong to the city, not Bardin.
Bardin refuses to budge. She said the records are personal and therefore not subject to release. She refused to elaborate on the contents of the records or their connection to city business.
“I released the records that I felt answered the public records request,” Bardin said. “I feel I have a right to my personal records.”
Local attorney Jeffrey S. Myers, who is representing the city in the matter, declined to comment on whether the city would take further legal action against Bardin. He said the case exists in a legal gray area and that unless the records request is dropped, the city must fulfill it according to the law.
“The city is obligated to respond to the Public Records Act and search for the requests,” Myers said. “The city doesn’t have these records.”
In a letter to Bardin, Myers wrote that the city is required to explain why such records do not exist, especially after Bardin identified the records in 2014.
Bardin addressed the matter in a legal declaration to the city, in which she claims to have discarded the 19 records that were part of the request.
“I declined to allow the city to review these 19 records to determine if they were in fact public records,” she wrote in the declaration. “Because I considered the records purely personal in nature, I have not provided them to anyone at the city to review to determine whether they are public records, or to determine whether they are exempt from disclosure under the Public Records Act.”
Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, suggested the city and Bardin invite a neutral third party to review the records.
“If I were in her position, I would just release them unless she can sincerely make the case that there’s nothing in here to do with city business,” Nixon said.
Nixon noted the legal gray area when it comes to who decides whether a record is personal or public — and said the courts still need to resolve these issues. In an effort to promote transparency, the coalition often advises the public sector to avoid responding to public business via a personal account, for example.
“If it’s related to the person’s work as a planning commissioner, and they were talking about a project or a permit application or whatever,” he said, “then absolutely it’s a public record and it should be released.”
In any case, Bardin said politics are at play and points to hard feelings among former colleagues on the Planning Commission. Last year, her Key Award drew criticism from commissioners who had defended the meetings as legal and who said Bardin had made false accusations that cast the Olympia Planning Commission in a bad light.
“I think the real issue is that some people in the community are mad at me for exposing the Planning Commission for having secret meetings with the developers,” Bardin said. “This might be a political issue.”