Politics & Government

Tacoma relents — a bit — after activist group sues for blacked-out documents

Save Tacoma Water filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the city of Tacoma, claiming it violated the state Public Records Act by blacking out large portions of documents the group alleges prove the city conspired to block its measures from the ballot.

Shortly after being served, the city turned over some of the records again — this time with fewer redactions.

The city says the first batch was a mistake that it was in the process of correcting before Save Tacoma Water filed its suit. Save Tacoma Water’s Sherry Bockwinkel, who requested the records, says the city is still hiding what could be damning information.

Bockwinkel had requested the city disclose invoices from a Seattle law firm that represented the city after the Port of Tacoma and two business groups sued Save Tacoma Water to kill ballot measures.

The measures, which Save Tacoma Water submitted, would have required a public vote before the city could approve projects requiring 1 million gallons of water per day or more. It was an outgrowth of opposition to a plan, now abandoned, to build a methanol plant on Tacoma’s Tideflats that would have used more than 10 million gallons a day.

The city, in responding to Save Tacoma Water’s records request, had redacted nearly all the descriptions of services provided by Pacifica Law Group.

Later that day, after being served notice of the lawsuit, the city sent Bockwinkel less-redacted versions of some of the invoices. In an email, the city admitted it had erred and said it would make the rest of the invoices available within a week.

After further review, we determined that the records that were produced responsive to your request ... did not go through all steps of our internal review process and some redactions were applied in error.

Email from city’s public disclosure assistant to Sherry Bockwinkel

“After further review, we determined that the records that were produced responsive to your request ... did not go through all steps of our internal review process and some redactions were applied in error,” read the email from the city’s public disclosure assistant. Included was a zip file with 16 documents, including invoices from Pacifica that date back to 2013.

Some of those invoices aren’t redacted at all — they deal with issues in which the law group represented the city in years past, mostly detailing costs associated with a “Historic Theatres Project,” which is not described further. But more recent invoices regarding a “methanol initiative” are still largely blacked out.

“What the city did was paramount to admitting guilt, by them turning in those documents,” Bockwinkel said. “What’s still interesting is they’re still playing games ... What are they hiding in the ones that they call the ‘methanol initiative?’ And there goes again the bias — it was never a methanol initiative, it was a water protection initiative.”

Part of what Bockwinkel and Save Tacoma Water were hoping to find were invoices relating to the city’s legal actions against their two ballot measures.

In July, a Pierce County Superior Court judge blocked both measures after the Port of Tacoma, Economic Development Board of Tacoma-Pierce County and the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce sued. Save Tacoma Water is planning to appeal that ruling.

The city was named in that lawsuit because it would have had to defend the ballot initiatives if they were passed, but it later filed a cross claim, saying Save Tacoma Water’s initiatives were too broad in scope and would conflict with state law.

Bockwinkel said the invoices on the “methanol initiative,” which date back to at least February, prove the city intended to try to block the water initiatives from the start.

“I think that they’re still hiding something and by the time that we get a chance to dig into this further, the question is why is any of that redacted,” she said.

We’re happy to see these documents come in, but we still reserve the right to further question the correctness of the redaction.

Nick Power, attorney for Save Tacoma Water

The “methanol initiative” invoices the city originally released showed only the name of the attorney, hours worked, their hourly rate and the total amounts owed. The new round offers more detail about what was billed, but blacks out names of people who consulted with the law firm and entire descriptions of what work was done in many cases.

City attorney Elizabeth Pauli said the Public Records Act allows that kind of redaction, because “the description of service may or may not include things that include work product or may be of a privileged nature,” she said. Under the act, specific descriptions of work performed in attorney invoices can be redacted if they reveal “an attorney’s mental impressions, actual legal advice, theories, or opinions,” or are otherwise exempt.

Pauli oversees the clerk’s office, which handles records requests. She said her office had made a mistake in the initial documents that were released: Bockwinkel had requested all invoices relating to the issue and all invoices from Pacifica in the last three years, Pauli said. One set of documents was reviewed by an attorney for the city and the other was reviewed by a staff person who is not an attorney.

“The staff person followed the previous model that more or less took out all narrative rather than reviewing the narrative, and we like our processes for narrative to be reviewed by an attorney to make that determination,” she said.

Pauli didn’t know about the over-redaction until the city was served with the lawsuit Wednesday, she said, but staff already had recognized the error and were working to correct it.

Nick Power, a lawyer for Save Tacoma Water, said he will review the newly-redacted records as they’re sent to decide whether the lawsuit should continue.

“We’re happy to see these documents come in, but we still reserve the right to further question the correctness of the redaction,” he said.

Candice Ruud: 253-597-8441, @candiceruud

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