Court finds in favor of former Mesa mayor

By Franny White, Herald staff writerAugust 24, 2008 

MESA -- A Superior Court judge has ruled that a small Franklin County town must pay its former mayor about $230,000 after losing a long-running dispute over public records.

After a five-year court fight, Judge William Acey found Mesa city officials incorrectly handled document requests by former mayor and councilwoman Donna Zink.

Now the town of about 440 people must figure out how it'll pay the large penalty, which could total more than two-thirds of the city's annual general fund budget.

The dispute began in 2002 when Zink began requesting public records after the city said a building permit to repair her fire-damaged home had expired.

Zink, whose council term had ended the year before, requested 172 records, including correspondence and phone and fax logs, over a 21/2-year span.

She requested the documents to investigate her expired permit and other complaints against the city.

Zink sued a year later, claiming the city improperly denied, blacked out or didn't respond to 37 of her requests.

Acey, a judge brought in from Asotin County, initially ruled in the town's favor. He noted that the city normally received one record request a month and that it was a "practical impossibility" for the city to strictly comply with Zink's numerous requests.

Mesa's "substantial" compliance was sufficient, he ruled in 2005. He also found that Zink's requests "amounted to unlawful harassment" and were an attempt "to make the city look bad."

But the state Court of Appeals disagreed and sent the case back to Acey.

The appeals court ruled that strict compliance with public record laws is required of all government agencies regardless of their size. It also threw out Acey's harassment finding against Zink.

Last month, Acey held another two-day hearing on the issue and decided Mesa must pay $228,905 plus Zink's legal fees.

The official judgment is due Sept. 12.

Acey's verbal ruling was that Mesa incorrectly responded to most of Zink's document requests, including one instance where he said the city was guilty of gross negligence. However, he also found that four requests were properly handled.

The penalty could take "quite a large chunk" out of the city's budget, said Mesa's Clerk-Treasurer Terri Standridge. The city's 2008 general fund budget is just $344,808.

Mesa has insurance through the Association of Washington Cities, and the city is investigating whether its coverage will pay the judgment, Standridge said.

The city council is waiting for direction from Mesa's attorney, Terry Tanner, before deciding what will happen next, she said.

Zink, who was Mesa's mayor from 1990 to 1993 and served two separate council terms through 2001, said she has mixed feelings about the judgment.

She worries the city still will take too long to produce documents, such as meeting minutes, which she says should be readily available to citizens.

"I'm really torn about it," she said. "Do I feel bad about it? Yeah. Do I feel it was necessary? Yeah."

For now, both sides are waiting until September, when Acey's decision will be made official, to decide their next step. Tanner said one of Mesa's options is to appeal.

In a related lawsuit, the state Court of Appeals agreed last year that Mesa owes Zink about $30,000 in court costs for her lawsuit involving her revoked building permit. Zink said she's still waiting for Mesa to pay that.

Zink and her husband, Jeff, eventually had their building permit reinstated, but Zink said legal fees have prevented them from finishing much more than the drywall. They continue to live in their Mesa home.

And a third lawsuit still is ongoing, said Zink's attorney, Ronald St. Hilaire. That case involves Zink's May 2003 arrest after she tried to videotape a public Mesa City Council meeting, which isn't illegal.

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