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Puyallup councilman takes records case to court

Post by Melissa Santos / The Olympian on July 16, 2009 at 3:18 pm with No Comments »
July 16, 2009 3:18 pm

A Puyallup city councilman has filed a court petition against the Puyallup city manager and Puyallup city attorney alleging they’ve withheld city records he needs to do his job.

John Knutsen, a first-term Puyallup councilman, is seeking a court order requiring City Manager Gary McLean and City Attorney Cheryl Carlson to give him unfettered access to city records.

Lawyers representing McLean and Carlson say Knutsen is requesting special treatment not given to anyone, councilman or otherwise.

In the petition Knutsen filed Monday in Pierce County Superior Court, he says he has asked for numerous city records since November that have been given to him only after being significantly redacted or edited.

Knutsen also says that when he has sought information about issues the city council is reviewing, he’s been forced to submit public records requests as a private citizen to get it.

"In order to perform my duties as a City Councilmember, I must be able to access information and records of the city," Knutsen’s filings say. "The law does not vest authority in the unelected City Manager and City Attorney to be the ultimate gatekeepers for all information pertaining to the City business."

Knutsen’s court filings name Carlson and McLean only in their official capacity, not as private citizens.

Milton Rowland, a lawyer speaking on McLean and Carlson’s behalf, said that Knutsen is requesting special access not given to any council member or member of the public.

Knutsen is asking city officials "to treat him differently than they treat anyone else who makes public records requests, and differently than any other City Council member," Rowland said in an e-mail statement.

The city will ask the judge to dismiss Knutsen’s petition, Rowland said.

"We are disappointed that he chose to act in a way calculated to drain public resources by filing a lawsuit," Rowland wrote, adding that Knutsen could have proposed instead that the City Council members vote to change how they receive information.

In one case cited in Knutsen’s court filings, the city council was discussing in a closed-door session whether to settle a lawsuit.

McLean and Carlson shared the recommendations of the city’s insurance provider regarding the settlement, according to Knutsen’s court filings.

But Knutsen wanted more information. He subsequently requested all correspondence between the city’s insurance provider and city officials.

When the city gave him the records nearly six weeks later, all legal recommendations from the insurance provider appeared to be redacted, he said.

"This is just a ridiculous thing," Knutsen said in a phone interview Thursday. "To have to sue to get information for the job you’ve sworn to do makes no sense."

Knutsen’s not alone in his opinion. During the course of his records disputes with Puyallup officials, Knutsen sought the advice of Tim Ford, open government ombudsman for the state attorney general’s office.

Ford responded to Knutsen in a letter saying he believes the councilman should have open access to records that deal with city affairs. The letter is included as an exhibit in Knutsen’s lawsuit.

"My informal advice is that if the records relate to the business of the council as a body, then you should have access to unedited copies of public records," Ford wrote Knutsen in a letter dated March 31. "Requiring a councilmember to submit a request pursuant to the Public Records Act may result in being more disruptive and actually waste more time and resources than merely responding informally."

Knutsen has clashed with McLean in the past, having voted against his appointment as city manager in early 2008 and supporting a motion to fire him earlier this year. That motion failed 4-3.

Knutsen’s relationship with Carlson has also been rocky, particularly when he threatened to sue the city over a "footnote" inserted into a set of meeting minutes more than a month after the meeting took place. The footnote referenced Carlson’s legal opinion that something Knutsen had said during the council meeting was incorrect.

Knutsen isn’t seeking damages, but is asking the city to pay his attorney fees should the court rule in his favor.

The parties are set to appear in court for a hearing July 31.

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