Opinion Columns & Blogs

Commissioners didn't want public to know staggering sum

Almost every week, a reporter at The Olympian files a request to obtain material available under the Freedom of Information Act.

This process is not limited to journalists. Anyone can request information, and the governing body is responsible for providing that information in a timely manner or citing the statute that specifically exempts it from public view.

That sounds simple, but it isn't always the case. It can be a tug of war.

Reporter Keri Brenner filed a formal request with Thurston County last November for the legal bills the county had paid in a sexual harassment lawsuit - a suit the county lost and is now appealing. The Seattle attorney hired by commissioners to represent the county denied the public access to those bills.

After several months of correspondence, and mounting legal bills, the issue came to a head in a legislative committee hearing on a bill introduced by state Rep. Brendan Williams, D-Olympia, to clarify that legal costs of a public agency are indeed public. That bill is moving toward passage.

A day after the committee hearing, the county's attorney handed over a list of expenses his firm had charged the county and the county insurer leading up to last November's trial. Reporter Brenner's analysis of the costs appears on today's front page.

The stunning total, plus the cost of the November trial, as provided by the county insurer, and the projected cost of the appeal, is a whopping $5.82 million. That eyeball-popping figure should dismay county taxpayers and our commissioners, who approved this course of action.

The argument that the insurance company pays the consequences, not the taxpayer, doesn't hold much water. Thurston County was saddled with an 8.1 percent surcharge assessed to its insurance premium as a result of the lawsuit - the most expensive public employment rate claim ever paid out by the risk pool since it was founded in 1988.

But, if editors at The Olympian had not continued to pursue these costs as an open record, it is unlikely you would ever know about this staggering sum. Thurston County commissioners certainly did not want you to know, and refused repeatedly to order their attorney to make the documents available. These elected representatives claimed they did not know themselves just how much had been billed on the county's behalf, nor did they seem to want to know, or to consider it their responsibility to manage the costs.

This week, as we recognize Sunshine Week to bring attention to the importance of open government and public records, think about your right to know - your right, among other things, to know just what your officials are doing ostensibly on your behalf.

Vickie Kilgore is executive editor of The Olympian and can be reached at 360-754-4223 or at vkilgore@theolympian.com.