During the past year, Woodinville elected officials have used public records requests to try to track each others’ actions, often requesting records from personal computers and phones over periods of months or years. According to a public records request made by the Woodinville Weekly for all the public records requests made in 2013 (through Oct. 16), 11 of 184 requests were made by current and former City Council and Water Commission members or candidates for those offices.
Deputy Mayor Liz Aspen said public records requests are becoming "burdensome" and "expensive" to the city.
City staff "spend a lot of time chasing down public records requests instead of doing their regular jobs," said Aspen, who blames the amount of records requests on the election year.
Jennifer Kuhn, Woodinville’s city clerk, handles all public records requests, in addition to other job responsibilities such as putting together packets and agendas for City Council meetings and going to the meetings.
Requests for records from a long period of time, such as months or a year, are "very, very time-consuming, especially because I have to go through almost every email individually to check for attorney-client privilege" and other exemptions allowed under the Public Records Act, Kuhn said.
Narrower requests for a specific topic, such as land acquisitions, can take more time to fulfill, because she has to sort through all emails to see which ones apply to the request.
Sometimes, she can search automatically for certain words, and tell the requester which words she searched for.
When she receives a request for records from Council members’ personal electronic devices, she notifies them of the request, with a reminder that any city business conducted on a personal phone or computer is still a public record. They’re responsible for sending Kuhn any relevant records, which she sends to the requester.
Some records simply aren’t available, Kuhn said. For example, the city doesn’t store voice messages or logs of phone calls.
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Requesting Party: Dale Knapinski
"Any records, e-mail, messages, electronic transmittals, voice mail, pertaining to the residency of Scott Hageman for the time period 1/01/2011 to present."
Knapinski, who’s running for Water Commissioner, made three similar but more extensive requests for records relating to City Council member Hageman’s residency. Knapinski also made two requests following up on a code enforcement complaint he made against Hageman.
Knapinski, who lived on the same street as Hageman, became curious whether Hageman was still a resident of Woodinville, and eligible to serve on the City Council, when Knapinski heard from neighbors that Hageman had moved to Kirkland.
When Hageman updated his address to that of another house in Woodinville, Knapinski filed a code enforcement complaint in April for construction work being done on that house, with photos of the alleged violations. Knapinski said the City didn’t investigate the complaint until several weeks ago, when Knapinski filed an ethics complaint with the Hearing Examiner. But now, Knapinski said City officials say they can’t determine when the construction work was done.
"It’s pretty obvious that they waited six months before they did anything," Knapinski said.
Knapinski said he learned from the public records request that Hageman contacted City Manager Richard Leahy via text message, threatening to arrest anyone who came to his house to investigate the code enforcement complaint. Although Knapinski requested records from Scott Hageman’s personal electronic devices, it was Leahy, not Hageman, who provided those records.
"Scott has never produced anything — not a text message, not an email, not anything," Knapinski said.
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Requesting Party: Liz Aspen
"Statement read by Mayor Bernie Talmas 2/12/13 regarding Councilmember Scott Hageman’s eligibility to serve on the Woodinville City Council."
Aspen, who is concerned about the burden public records requests place on the city, explained that she filed a records request only after asking Talmas directly for the statement. He told her that he gave it to the city clerk after reading it at a Council meeting, so "I had to make a formal request," Aspen said.
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Requesting Party: Hank Stecker
"...Please provide all correspondence to/from Woodinville City Councilmembers Rubstello, Aspen, Hageman, Bauman from 5/10/2013 to the date of this request. Include all correspondence from personal and public devices, via email (both city and personal email accounts), paper, voice mail, text and include phone logs for land/cell lines that lists calls and texts between any councilmembers and any calls and texts pertaining to city business…"
"Council members can’t meet in a majority mode outside of the chambers, outside of the public," Stecker, a former Council member, explained. "It became very disconcerting to me that Councilmember Rubstello, Deputy Mayor Aspen, Councilmember Hageman and Councilmember Bauman were consistently speaking in lockstep, with the same verbiage."
Stecker said Rubstello, Aspen, Hageman and Bauman frequently talk about "gridlock" preventing the Council from getting work done, and about the possible ethical violations of one councilmember. To Stecker, it didn’t seem like the four councilmembers were coming to their shared conclusions at meetings.
"To my surprise, what came back was nothing. Zero," Stecker said of the results of his records request. "Which, I can tell you as a past councilmember, is an impossibility.
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Requesting Party: Susan Boundy-Sanders
"This is a public records request for: The text of Paulette Bauman’s post on the Woodinville Patch regarding possible land acquisitions by Woodinville Any other records generated by or sent to Councilmembers regarding land acquisitions For the period January 1, 2013 to present Electronic or paper, including home and city emails, texts, and records in all other formats…"
Councilmember Boundy-Sanders wanted to see a blog post she says Bauman posted and then deleted about land acquisitions, specifically critical areas. Boundy-Sanders believed
Bauman might have violated state law by writing about topics the Council discussed only during executive session.
"Once she posted it, I was getting a lot of calls from citizens who said, ‘I don’t think you ever talked about this in public session,’" Boundy-Sanders explained.
Boundy-Sanders said she didn’t get the text of Bauman’s post from Bauman through the public records request, but she was able to get it because Patch automatically sends comments to people who previously commented. After reading the post, Boundy-Sanders said it appears that Bauman did talk about topics that were only discussed in executive session, which would be cause for immediate dismissal, but Boundy-Sanders decided not to bring a lawsuit against Bauman.
"I just didn’t think it was worth my time or money to pursue that," Boundy-Sanders said.
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Requesting Party: Paulette Bauman
"All records, including those produced from home computers, private email, work computers generated by Susan Boundy-Sanders and Mayor Bernie Talmas regarding the following: possible Property acquisitions in Woodinville by the city of Woodinville. Specifically but not limited to: The Draughn Property, Halsey Property, [Tanglin] Ridge, Phoenix/Wood Trails for January 1, 2013 to present."
Bauman declined to comment on the public records request she made.
"The property acquisition thing is very tentative right now, and I need more information before I can comment," she said.
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Requesting Party: Rick Chatterton
"All emails received/sent by Susan Boundy-Sanders and Dale Knapinski between 2/15/13 and 3/15/13."
Chatterton, a commissioner for the Water District, didn’t respond to requests for an interview.
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All records relating to city business are public, but it’s up to elected officials and government employees to produce those records from their personal computers, phones and other devices.
For example, Knapinski and Stecker said Hageman didn’t produce any records in response to their requests.
"I completely did reply to those requests," Hageman said. He didn’t have any records that applied to either request, he said. He added, "I try to keep all my conversations and my interactions with councilmembers...right up on the dais and in the public sphere where it belongs."
When people keep making requests for the same records after being told the records don’t exist, it becomes "harassment" and a waste of taxpayers’ money, Hageman said. He said those requests come from "a small group of people" who are "never satisfied with things" and "look for other ways to affect change" instead of working with the Council directly.
Kuhn explained that councilmembers aren’t required to keep records on their personal devices for a certain period of time.
"How do you know that person hasn’t deleted it?" she pointed out. "They don’t have to hold
on to it."
If citizens believe elected officials didn’t comply with their public records requests, "I imagine there’s some kind of recourse, but they’d have to show some proof," Kuhn said.