State GOP demands emails from Leavitt, Stuart

Two men are possible rivals to Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

Published:

Updated: September 29, 2011, 9:19 PM

 

On the Web:

• Want to read Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt’s complete response to the news the Washington State Republican Party filed a public disclosure request for every email he’s read or written since taking office? Go to http://www.columbian.com/weblogs/local-politics.

Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt has not officially announced a run against U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, in 2012.

Clark County Commissioner Steve Stuart has also not said anything other than he’s “watching and evaluating.”

But there’s enough speculation that the Washington State Republican Party filed broad public disclosure requests this week — the largest the commissioners’ office has seen in at least a dozen years — asking to see every email the two officials have written and received since taking office.

The requests will involve tens of thousands of documents and take county and city employees hundreds of hours to compile and review. It’s difficult to estimate how much money it will cost taxpayers, but smaller public disclosure requests filed this year with the city from one man were expected to cost up to $15,000 in staff time.

For Leavitt, the party wants all emails sent and received by Leavitt from Jan. 1, 2010 through Sept. 20, 2011.

For Stuart, the party wants all emails sent and received by Stuart from Jan. 1, 2005 through Sept. 20, 2011.

That’s approximately 81 months of emails for Stuart, who said he reads and writes as many as four dozen emails on a work day.

“It’s a political fishing expedition, is what it is,” Stuart said. “Of course we’ll comply, but it is ironic that the party preaching fiscal discipline would waste taxpayer money for political purposes.”

The public disclosure requests, dated Sept. 27 and signed by party chairman Kirby Wilbur, also ask for Leavitt’s and Stuart’s 2011 calendars.

Leavitt said the state Republican Party should not be wasting the time of city and county staff.

“I’m right here,” Leavitt said. “You know where to find me. Bring your cameras and your microphones, or send me an email and ask the questions you want answered. Waste MY time in an effort to find a needle in the haystack.”

Josh Amato, communications director for the state Republican Party, said the requests were filed because Stuart and Leavitt have been mentioned as two potential opponents for Herrera Beutler.

“We are asking for those records because we want to see what they are doing on official government time,” Amato said Thursday.

He said cities and counties exaggerate how much effort it takes to comply with requests.

Filing broad requests is “standard procedure on most races,” Amato said.

Not for the Washington State Democrats, said Chairman Dwight Pelz.

Pelz said Thursday that Democrats support public disclosure laws and make use of them, filing requests for documents from elected Republican officials. The difference, he said, is the requests are targeted to find information in the context of a critical issue.

He said the Republicans’ request for Stuart’s and Leavitt’s emails are “probably more intended to intimidate than to enlighten. And it’s just a waste of taxpayer funds.”

As an example, Pelz provided a copy of a March 23, 2010, records request he sent to Attorney General Rob McKenna. He asked for documents relating to McKenna’s “decision to join in bringing or threatening a lawsuit challenging some or all of the historic health care legislation approved by the House of Representatives on March 21, 2010.”

Concerns, no reform

Washington’s public records law, passed in 1972, requires that “all public records and documents in state and local agencies” must be available for public inspection and copying.

Public agencies that don’t comply can be fined up to $100 a day.

Many organizations — including The Columbian and other media outlets — and individuals make Freedom of Information Act requests. In 2009, Clark County spent 13,576 hours, or at least $270,000, on such requests.

Tina Redline, administrative assistant for Stuart, Commissioners Tom Mielke and Marc Boldt and Administrator Bill Barron, said the Republican Party’s request is the largest public disclosure request she’s handled in her 12 years with the county.

There are exemptions under the public records law. It’s not as simple as just turning the documents over to the requestor. Most of the documents will have to be reviewed by a deputy prosecuting attorney or an assistant city attorney to make sure the county doesn’t violate individual, business or legal confidentiality exemptions.

Redline said the county will work with the Republican Party to provide the documents in installments. Stuart’s emails that have already been reviewed under other public disclosure requests have been saved; however, those represent only a small portion of the emails, she said.

Barbara Ayers, Vancouver city spokeswoman, said Thursday that while the city keeps emails that have been requested by other people, it’s not as easy as just turning those over because previous requests may have been for different documents.

Earlier this year, the city received a request from Vancouver resident Mitch Copp, who wanted all email communications between June 1, 2010, and Jan. 11, 2011, from Leavitt and City Councilor Jack Burkman. Copp, who has emailed The Columbian with his suspicions about the political leaders involved in the Columbia River Crossing project, followed up with a request asking for all communications between June 1, 2010 and March 7, 2011 for the rest of the councilors except Jeanne Stewart.

Ayers said the city produced the emails as a PDF document.

“In the case of responding to Mr. Copp’s request, that PDF is many thousands of pages so if we did that, we would have to go through the PDF to pull out the emails from/to Mayor Leavitt from the thousands of other emails. And the time periods do not match,” Ayers said.

City Manager Eric Holmes estimated in March that Copp’s record requests would cost up to $15,000 in staff time. An updated figure was not readily available Thursday.

Under the law, there’s no charge for the search or to inspect the records, but a government can charge up to 15 cents per page for copying.

The requests from the state Republican Party used standard language: “I may order copies of the requested records, but first I would like to inspect them.”

Amato said the state Republican Party might buy CDs of the records.

State lawmakers have acknowledged the strain requests can put on government, but no reforms have been made.

During the last legislative session, several bills were introduced including one that would create a “cost recovery” clause, which would provide requestors with five hours of free search time per request per month. After that time was up, public agencies could recover search costs. Another bill would have created a review process, where officials could help a requestor narrow what he or she is really looking for in a search.

None of the bills made it to the governor’s desk.

Stephanie Rice: http://www.facebook.com/reporterrice; Twitter: col_clarkgov; stephanie.rice@columbian.com.