Belfair Water District is a small water district with approximately 1,200 customers located near Bremerton. The District is the latest public agency to face civil penalties for violations of the Washington Public Records Act. Judge rules against Belfair Water District in public records dispute, Steven Gardner, Kitsap Sun, August 6, 2011. The litigated requests began in 2009 when Greg Waggett asked for copies of the District’s insurance policy and current budget. Around the same time, Bonnie Pope, another requestor, requested copies of District commissioners’ expense reimbursement records. These were apparently the first public record requests handled by District staff.
Following these initial requests, Waggett began submitting increasingly burdensome requests to the District. According to the District, responding to these requests began to take up significant portions of district staff time and, ultimately, became so burdensome that two district employees quit their District jobs.
According to the District, Waggett also began to harass District staff. This harassment led the District Manager, Dave Tipton, to seek an anti-harassment order against Waggett. A court issued an anti-harassment order against Waggett for one year.
A year later, a hearing was held to determine whether the anti-harassment order should be renewed. The judge ultimately declined to renew the order citing the fact that Waggett had not violated the order in the previous year. Following this decision, Waggett’s attorney used the hearing to submit additional public record requests to the District. Waggett’s attorney handed Tipton public record requests in the courtroom and even had the judge acknowledge this in the official hearing record. Tipton would later argue that he never “accepted” these requests.
Following the court hearing, Waggett and Pope sued the water district alleging numerous violations of the Public Records Act (Chapter 42.56 RCW). Waggett and Pope argued that the District summarily denied requests instead of requesting clarifications; refused to accept record requests submitted through certified mail; and failed to respond to the requests submitted to Tipton at the court hearing. In early August, a Mason County Superior Court judge ruled in favor of the requestors and found that the District would be liable for the attorneys fees of the requestors and daily civil penalties. The judge will later determine the total amount due from the District.
This case illustrates that public agencies faced with harassing public record requestors may successfully obtain anti-harassment orders (or, declaratory judgments) to protect staff. Anti-harassment orders could prove to be a valuable tool in preventing requestors from interfering with public business. However, agencies should be aware that obtaining an anti-harassment order against a requestor does not relieve the agency’s obligation to respond to otherwise valid requests submitted by the requester. As this case shows, it is entirely possible that an agency can obtain an anti-harassment order against a requestor and still be found in violation of the Public Records Act.