Langley wins public records lawsuit

A judge recently sided with the city of Langley in a four-year-old lawsuit over public records.

A judge recently sided with the city of Langley in a four-year-old lawsuit over public records.

Island County Superior Court Judge Carolyn Cliff concluded that the city’s search for documents responsive to Eric Hood’s 2018 request was adequate under the law, though not perfect.

“But perfection is not required: the question is whether it is adequate,” she wrote. “A distinction between a perfect search and an adequate one is, perhaps, most readily made in the abstract, in contemplation of a document that was mistakenly overlooked.”

Hood, a Langley resident, is a frequent public records litigant; he is described as a “transparency advocate” by his attorney and a “professional public records requester” by an opposing attorney in another case. The 2019 lawsuit is one of five he’s filed against the city over the years.

In this case, court records indicate Hood read a 2018 story in the Whidbey News-Times about former Mayor Tim Callison firing Police Chief David Marks following a use of force investigation. Hood sent a request for “any records related to the city’s decision to terminate Dave Marks.”

Hood received records from the city but then later discovered that some documents were missing, according to his complaint. Most notably, he did not receive a complaint from the former sheriff to Callison which kicked off an investigation into Marks, who was accused of using unnecessary force to arrest a mentally ill man.

“More troubling,” Cliff wrote in her decision, is the absence of an email exchange between Callison and Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks in which the prosecutor criticized a consultant’s investigation.

Still, Cliff concluded, the law requires the search for records to be adequate.

She noted that Callison said he spent eight hours searching for records and that the city’s former public records officer performed her own search. She also pointed out that the records request only applies to records in the city’s possession and that the city didn’t have a duty to secure documents from other entities.

In addition, Cliff wrote that she is satisfied that most of the specific records requested by Hood were produced.

“Mayor Scott Chaplin and the city of Langley appreciate the court’s careful review of the record and her affirmation that the city fully complied with the Public Records Act,” Mayor Scott Chaplin wrote in an email.