School district, city again hit with public records lawsuits

A Langley man and self-appointed white knight of open government is once again charging two South Whidbey public entities with violating state sunshine laws.

Eric Hood

A Langley man and self-appointed white knight of open government is once again charging two South Whidbey public entities with violating state sunshine laws.

Eric Hood recently filed separate lawsuits in Island County Superior Court against the City of Langley and the South Whidbey School District for alleged breaches of the state’s Public Records Act. In both cases, Hood is seeking monetary damages and the release of documents he claims were withheld illegally.

Hood, who has sued the city and the school district several times in the past and received awards and settlements in at least two of the cases, released the following statement.

“The City of Langley and the South Whidbey School District withhold public records and publicized private information about many citizens, including children,” he wrote. “Laws that protect individual privacy and compel governmental transparency anchor our democracy. Government officials should not use the public’s money to defend their violations of these laws. Facts in a court of law should outweigh official attempts to demonize me in the court of public opinion.”

Leading officials with both public agencies independently denied the allegations, and have vowed to fight the latest suits. Each expressed confidence in their positions, and believe a judge will rule in their favor.

“We feel very strongly that we are going to prevail,” said Superintendent Jo Moccia.

Likewise, Langley Mayor Tim Callison said the city has refused an offer by Hood to discuss an out-of-court settlement. The city’s position is that the lawsuit concerns former Mayor Fred McCarthy, and the terms of a previous settlement with Hood preclude him from additional action against Langley.

“We don’t think we owe him anything more,” Callison said.

Hood said in his statement that the offer to settle “does not involve money.”

According to court documents, Hood alleged in his complaint against the city that officials silently withheld records, denied him access to others without citing an exemption per state law, failed to segregate documents made available for review, released other records that are legally deemed private — resumes, addresses, phone numbers, birth dates, information associated with a minor, etc. — without appropriate redactions, and allowed McCarthy to remove records from City Hall in violation of state law.

Hood is a former school district teacher whose contract was not renewed years ago. McCarthy was the school district superintendent at the time.

Hood’s complaint is based on a massive request asking for all written records, such as journals, diaries, notebooks, daily calendars and small pocket notebooks, along with “all city records” at McCarthy’s house, personal computer or personal device during his entire term in office.

The small notebooks are a specific source of contention, as  the city denied the request on the basis that “they are personal notes and not related to city business,” according to a Jan. 11 email to Hood from Debbie Mahler, Langley’s official public records officer.

Prior to Hood’s request, another city resident, John Norby, and The Record asked for the same notebooks as McCarthy kept them on his person and scribbled in them while on the job. Those requests, filed both in writing and verbally, were also denied with the city’s attorney citing case law that deems personal journals, telephone messages, and daily appointment calendars exempt from public disclosure.

In a telephone interview, Mahler told The Record the notebooks largely contained personal information and that anything that did relate to city business was transcribed by McCarthy onto other documents for release.

Due to the size of the request and having several people requesting the same information, the city made available for inspection at City Hall six boxes of documents and a laptop computer.

In the complaint, Hood alleged that the documents indicated the existence of a “Hood File” and that when he asked to review the records he was told by Mahler that McCarthy “took it with him” when he left.

This is the second time in less than a year that Hood sued the city over public records. In 2015, he claimed McCarthy kept a “secure confidential file” that was discussed via email to the city council. The city settled, paying Hood $1,000.

Though neither Hood nor city officials would discuss the terms of the deal in 2015, Callison said this week the agreement prohibited Hood from asking for more records while McCarthy was in office. Though the city was served the day after his term expired, the city’s position is that the settlement still applies as the records sought were created while McCarthy was still in office.

Hood’s complaint against the school district revolves around another large records request. It sought any costs associated with district public records policies, particularly those concerning one that used to identify requestors in financial documents; any costs of efforts to lobby for proposed changes to related laws during the 2015 legislative session, such as HB 1684; any costs of School Board Director Rocco Gianni’s trip to Washington D.C.; any “statements, drafts, notes, etc. made to any public agency or elected official regarding any district policies or actions associated with public records”; and “any records associated with the creation, implementation, or revision of any policy involving public records.”

Hood claimed the district denied records without providing the required exemption, that the district didn’t provide him the “fullest assistance,” failure to list or explain redactions and the illegal release of student information.

Hood has sued the school district several times since his teaching contract was not renewed. In one case a judge ruled in his favor, ordering the district to pay $7,000 for the “untimely production of documents.” He appealed the ruling and it remains in litigation.

Last year, the school district started a policy to identify people who made public records requests. School Board directors and administrators blamed Hood and the district’s related legal expenses as the genesis of the policy, but also couched it as a way to keep the board informed about financial expenses.

It was widely criticized by open government advocates and some district parents,  and was eventually rescinded on the basis that the identities of requestors didn’t actually help board directors better understand the financial ramifications of requests.

Moccia said Hood’s records requests were incessant.

“Quite frankly, he continues to be relentless with his public records demands,” Moccia said.

Moccia claimed that South Whidbey wasn’t the only school district to be sued by Hood for records requests; Mukilteo, Vashon and Edmonds schools districts have been as well, she said.

Hood said the allegation was “false” and that he didn’t sue two of the three. When asked if he’d sued any other public school districts other than the three mentioned, he said, “I won’t comment on that. I’ll just say that it’s false. I haven’t sued Vashon or Edmonds.”

He added in his statement the following:

“My lawsuits against other school districts allege they withhold records related to audits of their alternative learning programs, like South Whidbey School District’s former Bayview School, now known as South Whidbey Academy. Public audit records — not disclosed to me by South Whidbey — show that it was forced to return $95,665 to the state after Fred McCarthy and David Pfeiffer mysteriously over-counted less than 60 Bayview students.”

“One full-time student generates about $7,400 per year in state funds,” he wrote. “Public records, if I get them, may show whether administrators in other districts are also mathematically challenged. If I prevail in these lawsuits the penalty awards will help fund an organization whose mission is to compel governmental transparency and safeguard individual privacy.”

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