Sex offender names to be released everywhere but Benton County

Tri-City Herald staffNovember 27, 2013 

Thousands of sex offenders in every county across the state are expected to have their personal information released to a Mesa woman in the coming weeks -- except in Benton County.

Donna Zink has been in a legal battle for the past few months with Tri-City lawyers representing the offenders over the release of the information. She believes the information is public.

Franklin County agreed and released the data to Zink shortly after her initial request in July.

Zink, the former mayor of Mesa, has since made a Google database with the offender information and posted it for her friends, she said.

She thinks people have the right to know who is living in their neighborhoods. And while Level 1 offenders are considered the least likely to reoffend, Zink believes there are plenty who pose a risk to the community.

But Benton County officials notified the offenders of the pending release of information and many of them sued to stop it.

Currently, there are several temporary injunctions to prevent Benton County from releasing the information, including names, addresses and dates of birth. The offenders must register after being convicted of a sex crime.

Another attempt by Zink to get the information was shot down Wednesday by a Superior Court Judge Carrie Runge.

In an effort to go around the blockade in Benton County, Zink recently requested all registered sex offender information from the Washington State Patrol's database. The database has about 21,000 names.

The state patrol is planning to release the data to Zink for all 38 counties except Benton County by Dec. 10.

Superior Court Judge Carrie Runge ruled after a more than two-hour hearing Wednesday that the Benton County offenders' information should continue to be withheld until there's another hearing.

Runge ruled that the information Zink requested from the state patrol was not different from the information she requested directly from Benton County.

She told the court that while she doesn't have any sympathy for sex offenders, she doesn't feel it's appropriate to release the information while the other injunctions are in place.

Zink was critical of Runge's decision when she spoke to the Herald after the hearing.

"I am confused that we pay judges to decide cases and they don't understand the law," she said. "They don't look at it beforehand. I think if a judge is going to sit in judgment of the law, they should know what it is. How are we supposed to get anywhere in court?"

Zink believes her request with the state patrol is different than her request with Benton County, she said in court. She argued that the information is clearly a public record and a majority of it can be found online or in other court documents.

John Hillman, with the state Attorney General's Office, represented the state patrol in court. He believed Zink's request is different and the information should be released.

The information is a public record and just because offenders may be embarrassed by its release doesn't mean it should be protected, Hillman said. He was clear the state patrol is willing to grant Zink's request.

"Look at the Public Records Act," he said. "Nowhere does it say that this information shouldn't be released."

Hillman went on to say he doesn't think the information is exempt under any other statutes.

Richland Attorney Greg Dow, who represents 20 of the sex offenders, argued that the release of the information would cause irreparable harm.

"All protection will be swept away if the release is granted," Dow said.

Runge and Benton County Deputy Prosecutor Ryan Lukson expressed their frustration with Zink for trying to get the Benton County information by filing requests with other agencies.

Zink's multiple requests across the state have "made the procedural process of these cases essentially unmanageable," Lukson said.

Dow called Zink a "public records junkie" and believes her motive for pursuing the request is to try and sue the county, he said.

Zink sued the city of Mesa in 2003 for withholding public documents she requested. The city offered her a settlement in 2012 of more than $200,000 and the promise of a plaque at city hall. She said she turned down the settlement.

As part of the civil lawsuit, Dow has asked Zink to provide all public records requests she has made and copies of every document she has received from her requests.

Zink -- who has 30 days to respond to Dow's request -- told the Herald she will not discuss what she has requested or from where.

However, she added that Benton County is the only county that has not provided her with records she has requested.

-- Tyler Richardson: 582-1556; trichardson@tricityherald.com: Twitter; @Ty_richardson

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