MESA — The small town of Mesa's financial future appears dismal as it faces penalties from an eight-year-old public records lawsuit that's still plodding through the courts.
A recent preliminary state audit of Mesa has confirmed what city officials already knew -- that the city is at risk of not being able to meet its financial obligations because of the lawsuit.
Donna Zink, a former Mesa mayor, sued the city for withholding public documents she requested and won in 2008 when a visiting judge in Franklin County Superior Court found that city officials had improperly withheld documents in 40 record requests.
The original judgment of $246,000 against the town of 489 now has reached more than $300,000 with interest, according to the city. That doesn't include attorneys' fees for the city and the Zinks.
The dispute began in 2002 when Zink and her husband Jeff began requesting public records after the city told them a building permit to repair their fire-damaged home had expired.
Both Zink and Mesa have appealed the ruling, and the case is scheduled to be argued before the Court of Appeals in Spokane on March 23 for the third time.
Mesa is asking the court to consider the penalties using mitigating factors such as the city's limited resources, culpability and all the circumstances of the case, said Kennewick attorney Lee Kerr, who is representing Mesa along with Everett attorney Ramsey Ramerman.
Zink, on the other hand, has said the per-day penalty for withholding the records isn't steep enough considering the offense. She also is challenging the exclusion of 842 days of interest for the time she did not have the records requested. That covers the duration between a 2005 decision in Mesa's favor and when the Court of Appeals decision overturning his initial ruling.
In response to the state's preliminary audit findings, Mesa City Council members last week unanimously approved a plan for what the city will do once the court process is complete.
Mesa began this year with about $319,000 in the bank. The city's annual operating budget is about $1 million.
The city's plan said its first step would be to use its $72,000 in reserves to pay the judgment if the total fine is equal to or less than the reserves.
If the city must pay more than that, Mesa would try to obtain a loan from the private market or a public entity like Franklin County or the state, Kerr said.
Kerr said he wasn't aware of any available grants that would help Mesa cover the costs of the court case.
The city also could ask voters to pass a property tax levy lid lift to pay for the court costs, Kerr said.
If all else fails, the bottom line is declaring bankruptcy or disincorporation, according to the city's plan.
Part of the reason the cost of the case is so high is because of the difficulty getting scheduled in court, Kerr said. And in the meantime "The interest clock is still ticking," he said.
Kerr said a decision from the Court of Appeals could come 90 days to six months after the court hearing.
Even then, he expects that the appeals court will send the case back to Franklin Superior Court to be heard yet again.
The ruling also could be appealed by either side, Kerr said, which would extend the amount of time.
Zink said she hopes the Court of Appeals will make a final decision on the penalties so the case can end.
* Kristi Pihl: 509-582-1512; firstname.lastname@example.org