Tacoma Fined and Ordered to Train Department Heads in Public Records Compliance

The City of Tacoma has been fined $36,800 and ordered to provide training to all department heads for failing to produce a fire protection study when requested by an open government activist, The News Tribune is reporting.

The city was sued back in 2016 by Arthur West, who has filed dozens of public records lawsuits against state and local agencies. West was seeking “threat assessment” records related to an LNG facility. When the records he sought were not produced, he filed suit in Pierce County Superior Court. The trial court denied his request, prompting West to appeal to the Washington Court of Appeals, who ruled in 2018, as follows:

  • Arthur West appeals from the trial court’s dismissal of his Public Records Act (PRA) claim against the City of Tacoma seeking “threat assessments” related to a liquid natural gas (LNG) terminal being built in the Tacoma port.
  • We conclude that the City silently withheld records in response to West’s request.
  • We reverse the dismissal of West’s claim and remand to the trial court for further proceedings.

Here is a copy of that ruling.

On January 31, 2020, Judge Frank Cuthbertson ruled that the city was negligent in failing to provide the requested records. The News Tribune quoted from the decision:

  • The City’s process for responding to public records requests includes training and supervision, and an automated system for receipt of requests and production of records, which is a mitigating factor in establishing an appropriate penalty.
  • The Court, nonetheless, finds that additional Public Records training to all City Department heads is needed with the intent that the importance of a clear and consistent process of compliance with the Public Records Act ripple out to City Department Heads, and the Court expects the City Attorney’s office to conduct such training.

The News Tribune also highlighted the fact that the city has been fined nearly $3 million in public records cases over the past 5 years. More on the story.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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