The Everett Herald reported today that the City of Monroe had agreed to pay over $150,000 to settle a five-year old dispute involving disclosure of public records. According to the Herald, the claimant spent approximately $115,000 in attorney fees to litigate this drawn-out dispute.

The subject of the request was e-mail traffic from and to City officials regarding City Council meetings in March 2005. The City, however, refused to provide unredacted e-mail messages from the home computers of various council members, citing privacy protection exemptions in the Public Disclosure Act. The City also claimed that it was not required to provide electronic copies of the e-mail records.

The City won in Superior Court, but lost in the Court of Appeals Mechling v. City of Monroe, 152 Wn. App. 830, 222 P.3d 808 (2009). The Court of Appeals held that e-mails are “records” – even on a home computer – under Washington’s Public Records Act. The City bears the burden to demonstrate why it could not produce electronic copies of those e-mails, if requested. Indeed, since the Mechling decision in 2009, the Washington Supreme Court has ruled that even the “metadata” contained in electronic e-mails is a public record and must be produced when requested. O’Neill v. City of Shoreline, ___Wn.2d___, 240 P.3d 1149 (October 7, 2010).


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Emails allow an increased level of public access to government decision-making because many issues are resolved in email exchanges that 20 years ago would have been addressed in person or over the phone. These same emails, however, sometimes reveal embarrassing information.   Example A:  the scandal related to South Carolina Governor Sanford’s affair.  For more see

When the U.S. Forest Service was considering whether to fire whistle-blower Glen Ith back in 2007, its ethics chief was keenly aware that his emails on the topic were public records, subject to discover.  His solution?  Instruct all recipients to destroy the emails:

This information is for your eyes only.  Please destroy after reading.  It’s

Update (April 22, 2009) — Happy Earth Day

In this editorial, Seattle City Attorney Tom Carr responds to an earlier editorial about his role in the “closed door” meeting controversy.  The two editorials serve to highlight an often overlooked point — the public’s perception of a government’s compliance with open government laws can be more important than the government’s strict compliance with those laws.  One of the primary purposes of open government laws like the Open Public Meetings Act and the Public Records Act is to build public trust.  If the public thinks the government is trying to keep something secret that should be public, it builds distrust.


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