Mesa's settlement offer better than bankruptcy

June 27, 2012 

You'd be hard pressed to find greater proponents of public access to government records than the members of this editorial board.

We championed former Mesa Mayor Donna Zink when she took on that city for its reticence to provide her with requested public documents during a dispute over a building permit. She sued the city, and the case has been in the courts for years.

Zink recently rejected a settlement offer from the city and now the two parties will wait to hear from the state Supreme Court for a decision. If the ruling comes down in Zink's favor, Mesa's current mayor says it could bankrupt the town of 490 residents.

As much as we advocate for access to public records and transparency for government entities, we also encourage reason and common sense and promote using the system for good and not just to be a nuisance.

Public records champions should fight to ensure public access for themselves and for other citizens who will make similar requests in the future.

In not accepting Mesa's offer, Zink risks appearing greedy and vindictive. The city offered her $200,000, an apology and a plaque at City Hall. She instead chose to file an appeal with the state Supreme Court.

"After nine years, did they think I'd roll over and say, 'Oh, gosh. All will be forgiven?' Their apology was empty," Zink said of the offer.

The city, as many government entities do, was trying to settle to avoid further litigation in the matter, and in the case of Mesa, potential bankruptcy if the ruling is not in its favor.

The offer included $110,719 "in recognition that you were required to incur fees to vindicate your rights."

Other components in the offer would have given Zink the assurance that future public records requests would receive better treatment than hers did.

One of the additional offers would have given her an additional $90,000, bringing the total settlement to $201,000.

Two lesser cash offers included ways to improve public access to city records, including a website with essential documents. Zink still could have walked away with $136,000 to $176,000 with those two packages and assured that her legacy would have included protecting the public's right to access Mesa's records.

It would have also assured that the city would not have faced bankruptcy.

Instead, Zink chose to keep the lawsuit alive and risk the future of the city, along with the promised improvements to public records access.

The wait for the Supreme Court's decision could take up to six months, and if the case goes back to court, the city would use part of the $90,000 it offered to Zink for court costs. That would leave Mesa unable to pay any court-ordered awards and could eventually force it to disincorporate and become part of Franklin County.

If Zink remains bitter about the way Mesa treated her, it would be difficult to blame her.

Superior Court Judge William Acey described the city's actions as "egregious" and pointed to a "Richard Nixon style" coverup of an unlawful meeting related to the case.

The $246,000 judgment reflects the fact Acey found city officials guilty of more than an innocent misunderstanding of the state's sunshine laws.

But Zink has the chance to force more transparency and access at City Hall and still walk away with a substantial settlement.

It seems as if the better legacy for the former mayor would be to make her city better rather than erase it from the map.

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