Langley hit with another public records lawsuit

A South Whidbey man recently filed his fifth Public Records Act lawsuit against the city of Langley.

A South Whidbey man recently filed his fifth Public Records Act lawsuit against the city of Langley.

Eric Hood’s latest lawsuit describes — from his perspective — a history of his records requests with the city, focusing on actions by attorneys who represented the city through its insurance pool. He claims that the attorneys have acted as puppets of anti-transparency state officials, that they have provided bad advice to Langley officials and that they have improperly withheld legal files from the city. The claim arises from requests Hood made in 2020 and 2022.

The lawsuit states that Hood is not seeking monetary relief, though he is asking for attorney’s fees.

In a statement, Langley Mayor Scott Chaplin wrote that Hood’s new lawsuit “seems to be just a rehashing of prior unsuccessful arguments and it improperly seeks to challenge cases that the court already resolved.”

The insurance pool no longer provides attorneys to defend Public Records Act lawsuits, which means the city will have to pay legal costs.

“This expenditure will come directly from the city’s operating funds — so instead of helping fund badly needed projects, such as planning for safer streets, staff training, improvements to the Seawall or upgrading our accounting and public records software, we are spending money on lawyers,” Chaplin said. “While I am confident we will prevail, it is a shame that we will be requiring this expenditure of public funds to once again vindicate the city.”

Chaplin said he didn’t know yet if the city would pursue sanctions against Hood. Under a court rule, lawsuits must be well grounded in fact and should not be filed for an improper purpose, such as to harass.

The Langley City Council had scheduled an executive session Monday night to discuss the lawsuit. The meeting was rescheduled for next Monday, however, after the South Whidbey Record pointed out to city leaders that a notice of the meeting hadn’t been sent to the newspaper or posted on the city’s website, as required by the Open Public Meetings Act.

Hood, a former teacher, has made a career out of filing Public Record Act lawsuits against agencies large and small across the state.

Earlier this year, a judge in Island County Superior Court ruled in favor of Hood in one issue from a wide-ranging lawsuit filed seven years ago. She found that the city had fair notice from court filings in 2017 that Hood did not believe he had narrowed his request for the former mayor’s calendar. At that point, the city had five days to respond to his un-narrowed request, but the city did not do that until 2019.

Still, Judge Carolyn Cliff found that the city had acted in good faith and that the electronic calendars which were withheld did not have great public interest. She ordered the city to pay just $5 for each day the copies of the electronic calendars were withheld. Since it took 1,063 days to fulfill the request, the penalty amounted to $5,315. She also ordered the city to pay $30,700 in attorney’s fees, which was about half of what Hood’s attorney, William Crittenden, had requested.

Hood appealed the award to the state Court of Appeals, arguing that the city should pay more. The city filed a notice of a cross appeal this week.

Both Hood and Crittenden have been critical of attorneys provided by the Association of Washington Cities’ Management Service Agency, which is essentially an insurance company for cities. They argued that the attorneys have over-litigated public records cases in order the wrack up attorney’s fees and turn public sentiment against government transparency laws and requesters. At the same time, the insurance pool legally could not cover judgments against cities in public records cases.

“Mr. Hood’s new case is about the fact that Langley is still wildly out of compliance with the PRA, precisely because the city has failed to hire a real city attorney for years,” Crittenden said.

The city no longer has an attorney provided by the risk pool, but is working with Jessica Goldman of Summit Law Group. Chaplin said she is an excellent attorney and understands the background of the cases.

Chaplin said Hood’s lawsuits are a huge distraction and a drain on staff morale.

“It is a sad day for our community that these lawsuits have spilled over into yet another year, wasting an exorbitant amount of everyone’s time and energy,” he said. “I decided to apply for the mayor’s position because I wanted to work on affordable housing, promotion of energy and water efficiency, renewable energy, social justice and other issues that local governments can play a substantial role in supporting; but instead, I have ended up spending more time on the his lawsuits than on all those issues combined.”