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Public document showdown averted

Post by News Tribune Staff on Sep. 30, 2008 at 3:18 pm with No Comments »
September 30, 2008 3:18 pm

A court battle over open records and the company that operates the Northwest Detention Center has been avoided.

The GEO Group, which has operated the 1,030-bed Northwest Detention Center since 2004, filed a petition in Pierce County Superior Court last week to block the release of several documents requested through public-disclosure laws.

Here’s what happened:

Tim Smith of the Bill of Rights Defense League filed the request to obtain tax records from The GEO Group. He said he filed the records to "better understand the operations of the facility and current efforts to expand its operations." The detention center will expand by 545 beds. The $40 million project should be completed by September 2009.

The City of Tacoma contacted The GEO Group, as it normally does when records about a third party will be disclosed, city spokesman Rob McNair-Huff said.

"Our process that we’ve followed at the city for a number of years – which is consistent with state law – is to alert the individual or company that has potentially private or protected information involved in the record requested," he said. "We let them know that information is being requested and give them an opportunity to decide if that’s an issue for them or not. If it is, they can go to court to block the disclosure."

That’s what The GEO Group did. In a brief filed by Fircrest lawyer Joan Mell, it said information had erroneously submitted to the city that, if released, would "cause an unfair competitive disadvantage to GEO Corp. in its federal competitive contracting and would harm petitioner’s business and marketability."

It sought protection under the trade secrets protections in the state disclosure law. The documents in question, Smith said, involved the calculation of manpower charges.

A court date was set for January.

The petition was brought against the city, but McNair-Huff said it wasn’t offering an opinion in the deal.

"We’re waiting word from the court," he said. "The question is between the person who requested the record and the corporation itself. There’s been a court action filed, and we’ll see how that comes out. And then the city will follow the order of the court."

But there won’t be a court order. Mell and Smith both said the two sides agreed that the documents in question won’t be turned over.

"In the interests of obtaining the other records the City of Tacoma may have," Smith said, "I thought it best to not fight for those five pages because we would probably not win."

So what would have happened? Of course, we’ll never really know. But it could’ve been interesting.

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