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County pays out $52K in public records settlement

At the direction of San Juan County Prosecutor Randy Gaylord, a file concerning an Improper Government Action (IGA) was separated from a code enforcement file despite the objections of the Code Enforcement Officer. As a consequence of that action, the county will pay $22,501 plus $29,942.75 in attorney and court fees to settle a Public Records Request.

Sheryl Albritton of San Juan Island wanted the  records regarding the actions the county took when determining what a neighboring property owner would be required to do when developing their property. Since the requirements differed substantially from what Albritton had been told she would need to do when she had looked into purchasing the property, she requested the Code Enforcement Officer  (CEO) review the case.

The CEO discovered during his review that county Manager Mike Thomas had informed the then Community Planning Department Director Sam Gibboney that there were no wetlands on the site. According to Thomas that conclusion was made by "J.T." when she and Thomas took an evening stroll through the Portland Fair neighborhood. Thomas, county Councilmember Bob Jarman and the county's Human Resource Manager all happen to live in the Portland Fair neighborhood. No identity or credential for "J.T." was supplied by Thomas who it turned out was his wife Jennifer Thomas.

A written report, required as part of the permitting process was never produced.

At the time the CPD had experts available to make wetland delineations at no cost to property owners. Later, a state wetland expert reported that there was evidence of three wetlands on the property and on an adjoining property owned by the Portland Fair Home Owners Association.

The CEO filed an IGA complaint. Gaylord and the county Council disagreed over who had the authority to conduct the review and both ended up releasing reports on the case.

Gaylord's report stated:  "The reconnaissance of the wetland was performed in an informal manner that was not consistent with County Code or the procedures set forth by the CDPD."

Gaylord concluded "No further action is needed to comply with the law."

The IGA report was filed with the rest of the code enforcement file. Gaylord ordered the CEO to remove the file and called him insubordinate when he refused to do so.

Ultimately, a Prosecutor's Office staff member removed the file. It was returned to the CEO labelled: ""Chris Laws personal information IGA - 1/21/2015 Report.

When the county's response to Albritton's Public Record Request did not include the IGA, she filed the lawsuit October 9, 2015 in Skagit County.

In its press release, announcing the settlement, the county blames the incident on a "misunderstanding."

However, this lawsuit was based upon a misunderstanding of Albritton’s request which sought production of a code enforcement file. “When we reviewed the lawsuit, it became clear that Ms. Albritton wanted more than just code enforcement records. Our first step was to provide her with all the additional documents, including records about the IGA complaint which did not properly belong in the code enforcement file.”

During its investigation into the matter, the County identified mistakes which were made during its response. Myers stated, “We identified mistakes and the County Council wanted to own up to them. As a result, we made a substantial offer to Ms. Albritton, which was designed to avoid expensive, prolonged litigation that could greatly increase the cost to County taxpayers. We are pleased that this offer was accepted and that this will resolve the case. The quick resolution of the Plaintiff’s claims avoids protracted litigation and protects County tax dollars.” 

According to the county's press release, the solution to the need for the settlement is to invest in new software for the county and to increase training.  

"The County is investing in new software and training to improve its responsiveness under the Public Records Act. The County is acquiring software, known as GovQA, to track requests and ensure timely responses. The County is also investing in software to capture and preserve text messaging, website and social media content. The County anticipates that this software will be ready for use by the end of December.

"The County Council has appointed Council member Jamie Stephens to serve as the new interim public records officer, to oversee processing of PRA requests. Training will be increased for County staff so that they understand public records requirements. In addition, the county will be updating its website to clarify the records request process for the public." 

In the settlement agreement, Sheryl Albritton agreed to dismiss claims without prejudice against Gaylord. 

Previous articles:

Special treatment for council member's neighbors

Lawsuit filed against County and Prosecutor

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