Gold Bar Meets the Gold Standard of Records Request Response; Still Costs City A Pretty Penny

By 2009, Susan Forbes “and other persons aligned with her” had submitted 82 record requests for various City of Gold Bar public records. Many of those emails were stored on the personal email devices of the mayor, city council members, and other city staff. For over a year, the City corresponded with Ms. Forbes, fulfilling her “purposeful[ly] broad” requests through installments, but also extending its estimated times for response on several occasions. “Unsatisfied” with the delay and the absence of a privilege log outlining withheld documents, Ms. Forbes sued the City claiming the delays were not “reasonable.”

The Washington Court of Appeals, Division 1, provided some vindication for the City, if not relief, upholding a trial court’s summary judgment rejecting Ms. Forbes’ Public Records Act lawsuit. As the Court reiterated, the PRA allows a public agency to respond to a request for public records by providing a reasonable timeframe for response. The agency may fulfill requests in installments as additional requests are assembled to complete broad requests. The superior court may, however, require the agency to show that the estimate was “reasonable” under RCW 42.56.550. By analogy to FOIA and PRA case law on the reasonableness of searches, the Court found that the extensive nature of the requests, resulting in disclosure of 28,290 documents, made delays in production reasonable.

During litigation, Ms. Forbes also requested that the trial court review in camera personal emails that were not produced. The lower court declined because Ms. Forbes “did not have any clear articulation as to why such a review would be appropriate.” Division I affirmed and held that the City’s “clear and consistent record” of adequate searches in reasonable times did not merit in camera review of records not produced. Importantly, the personal emails at issue did not contain city business. The Court distinguished Mechling v. City of Monroe, where personal emails were not exempt because they contained information relating to the conduct of government. Here, no emails containing city business were withheld. Furthermore, because the personal emails were merely non-responsive, they were not withheld, and the City was not required to produce a privilege log.

The cost of responding to the voluminous requests and the related litigation has pushed the City of 2100 people to the brink of bankruptcy. One of the largest expenses (and reasons for delay) was the need to search city officials’ personal electronics and home computers, including sorting personal emails from City business. Better document management practices may not have eliminated Ms. Forbes’ issues, but it could have decreased Gold Bar’s costs.
 

Seattle Times reports about Gold Bar Community Relations

Update: The Seattle Times corrected its coverage to reflect that Councilmember Wright was convicted of domestic violence assault in 2007.

On February 5, 2012, Emily Heffter from the Seattle Times reports about Gold Bar:

Most small towns have a local busybody.

In Gold Bar, it's Anne Block, whose hyperlocal news site is a hotbed of rumors and accusations. She writes that city officials are "evil people," "wife-beaters" and "promiscuous." There also are restaurant recommendations and a recipe for peanut-butter cups.

On her site, goldbarreporter.org, Block likened the former mayor to a dog and accused the former City Council of tampering with meeting minutes, hiding public records and making Gold Bar like "a religious fundamentalist town in Iran."

Block, 44, is an attorney who has become one of Snohomish County's most notorious activists as she's taken her crusade for a more transparent government online. She's also become a divisive figure in tiny Gold Bar, which is dealing with money problems while trying to respond to Block's four lawsuits and extensive requests for public records.

Block, a Massachusetts native, moved to Gold Bar in 2006 after law school and started her news website to try to publicize what she alleges as corruption at Gold Bar City Hall. She is aided by unsuccessful City Council candidates Susan Forbes and Joan Amenn.

Block and her partner visited the Seattle area and loved it so much they decided to move to Gold Bar so she could set up her employment-law practice. Her partner, Noel Frederick, also has an interest in politics and has run for City Council.

"What motivates us? Basically, in a nutshell, it's open government and the idea that a handful of people can effectively make change, just like Martin Luther King and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony," Block said.

Asked whether they're certain everything on the site is true, Block and Forbes answered simultaneously:

"Yes," said Block.

"It may not be perfectly true," said Forbes, "but there's something in it that's true."

In September, Block posted a story alleging that County Executive Aaron Reardon spent taxpayer money on a trip "with his mistress and a former Snohomish County employee."

The allegation came out of the blue during Reardon's re-election campaign — at the top of a story titled: "Reardon's deck of cards loaded with jokers and criminals" that featured his photo floating in front of a background of animated falling confetti.

A month later, a county employee did come forward and say she had traveled with Reardon on county trips as part of an affair. The State Patrol is investigating whether Reardon misused county funds. The executive has denied criminal wrongdoing, but has not commented on the alleged affair.

There's a gray line between opinion and fact, said Judy Endejan, who practices media law in Seattle. But the language on Block's website raises a red flag, she said.

"Right now we're in an age where, you know, it's kind of the Wild West because people feel like they can just say anything on the Internet and not have to suffer the consequences, and that's not really true," she said.

'Too much corruption'

The Gold Bar Reporter's newsroom is Block's kitchen table in a subdivision with a mountain view. There in front of her laptop — with her snowflake tablecloth and collection of souvenir spoons — she churns out articles about local officials and puts them online.

"We decided there's been just too much corruption out here in Gold Bar, so we had to do something," she said in an interview she agreed to do via Skype because she believes her phone lines are tapped.

Eventually, Block, Amenn and Forbes would like a traditional community news site. But they said there's so much corruption they don't have time to write many feature stories.

Block started going to City Council meetings a few years ago and became annoyed that the mayor, Crystal Hill, was bringing her kids to the meetings and leaving them in the break room. So, she said, she emailed Hill and told her to get a baby-sitter because they were disrupting the council.

Later, Block requested all of Hill's email, then accused her of a whole list of things: affairs, extortion, hiding public records, and she even disclosed an alleged medical condition. She put it all on her website, because, she said, "Why not?"

Hill didn't want to comment for this story. She married John Pennington, the head of the Snohomish County Department of Emergency Management, and moved out of town in 2009 before her term ended.

Hill has said she resigned because of relentless harassment.

She told The (Everett) Herald shortly after she resigned that someone using an alias had been bombarding her, her family and her Seattle employer with emails accusing her of using drugs, supplying drugs to city staff and having an affair with a fired city employee. Hill said at the time the allegations were false and she had little recourse.

For Block, one records request led to another, and another, and several with Snohomish County government, as well. One of her lawsuits seeks records that mention her own name.

"She's a hot topic in town," said City Councilmember Christopher Wright. "It's not a secret that Anne Block is suing the city and making wild accusations about people."

The Gold Bar Reporter calls Wright "a deviant criminal, wife beater and liar." Court records show Wright has never been charged with domestic violence, though he was convicted of assault and drunken driving almost 20 years ago.

Wright said he has had to answer co-workers' questions about whether he really beat his wife. (He says he didn't.)

"People would come up to me and say, 'Oh, we read about you online.' And that's when it really, really got to a point that I really would have loved to sue her," he said.

Block estimates she's read 125,000 city and county emails. She knows a lot of dirt on everybody — and her articles range from true to partly true or exaggerated.

Says Endejan, the media lawyer: "If you accused someone of being a drunken wife beater, I would probably drill you pretty hard on what facts you had to support that, and one drunken-driving conviction 25 years ago probably wouldn't do it for me."

But everyone is so afraid of being sued by Block that they don't dare try to stop her, said Mayor Joe Beavers. On Block's site, the mayor is nicknamed "Tricky Beavers."

Gold Bar is home to about 2,000 people. That means Block, Forbes and Amenn run into their subjects at the grocery store, the gas station, everywhere.

The situation has taken a toll on their relationships with the locals.

After handling Block's records requests for a couple of years, the city clerk said in a court declaration that she was uncomfortable serving as a witness in a lawsuit because the Gold Bar Reporter website had created an environment that was "contentious and hostile."

Block doesn't go into City Hall alone, and she recently bought a gun because she said someone tried to kick in her door.

"I've had death threats. I've had beer bottles thrown on my front lawn."

Actually, she clarified, it was a half-filled can of Miller. She has photos she says prove someone put a tracking device on her car.

"I wonder when I turn the key to my car one day whether it's going to blow up."

Chunk of budget

In 2010, Gold Bar spent $70,000 of its $573,898 budget responding to public-records requests, almost all of which were from Block and Forbes, according to a filing in Snohomish County Superior Court.

"As mayor, I have had little time to do anything but respond to the PRRs that have been submitted and continue to be submitted by Forbes and others," Beavers wrote in a statement for the court.

Beavers is lobbying the Legislature for a law that would allow cities to deny records requests they deem harassing.

The city has paid thousands of dollars to an Issaquah technology company to dissect Hill's personal Blackberry to ferret out her disclosable emails. Gold Bar hired a sixth employee and transferred one of its two maintenance workers into City Hall to help respond to requests, according to the mayor's court affidavit.

Wright says they are spending so much on records requests, they can afford to snowplow only the major arterials.

City officials say they don't read the Gold Bar Reporter ("except for humor," said Beavers). But they have saved hundreds of printouts documenting the last three years of postings.

The Jan. 10 City Council agenda had 10 items, and eight of them were regarding lawsuits filed by either Block or Forbes.

The crusade is costing Block tens of thousands of dollars of her own money, she said, but she won't back down because she's so committed to cleaning up government.

In a September 2009 posting, Block summed up her potential impact this way:

"For years, people like Crystal Hill ... have controlled and manipulated Gold Bar residents and local politics. But with an activist attorney in Gold Bar, along with a new online newspaper, those days are numbered."

Information from The Associated Press is included in this report. News researcher Gene Balk contributed.

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or eheffter@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @EmilyHeffter.