Judge slashes penalty in Mesa public records case

Donna Zink appears recently in Franklin County Superior Court before Judge Bruce Spanner.
Donna Zink appears recently in Franklin County Superior Court before Judge Bruce Spanner. Tri-City Herald

A Franklin County judge halved the damages Mesa must pay its former mayor in a long-running legal dispute over its failure to comply with Washington’s Public Records Act.

In a partial win for the tiny farm city of less than 500, Superior Court Judge Bruce A. Spanner ordered Mesa to pay Donna Zink $175,000 for 33 separate infractions of the state records law.

The decision is a substantial reduction in the penalty, which was initially set at nearly $353,000 on May 10 following a three-day trial. At the time, Spanner expressed concern about the amount relative to Mesa’s size. He reserved the right to revise it later.

Mesa petitioned the court to reduce the amount by 75 percent. The city’s attorney said it will pay the award from money saved for that purpose.

Zink could not be reached for comment. She confirmed that she would appeal on the Google Plus page where she discusses her public records cases, including her successful campaign for the release of Level 1 sex offender records.

In lowering the penalty, Spanner cited a separate case against the Washington Department of Labor & Industries in which the court concluded that it was appropriate to consider the impact a penalty will have on an agency.

In her online comments, Zink faulted that thinking, saying it amounts to unequal justice based on the size of the communities in which people live.

Zink wrote that by reducing the penalties to a “ridiculous amount,” the court is sparing her from feeling guilty about appealing another outcome of the case related to legal fees.

“Do I feel bad about this? No. Why should I? The attorneys have no issue with charging the city of Mesa for attorney fees and costs,” she wrote.

Ramsey Ramerman, an Everett attorney representing Mesa, said the city began saving money in anticipation of the judgment more than a decade ago.

Zink first sought public records from Mesa in 2003, when she asked for documents related to an upswing in fines for code issues. As the number of her requests grew, the city balked. At one point, officials limited the number of hours she could spend at city hall.

Zink and her husband, Jeff, sued Mesa after being told, “Take us to court.”

The city won the initial round, casting Donna Zink as a crank.

The couple appealed and won their case on retrial. The penalties were awarded following a second appeal. The Zinks’ plan to appeal the reduced damages will be the case’s third trip to the appellate court.

The Zinks rejected a 2012 offer to settle.

In a May 24, 2012, letter signed by Mayor David Ferguson, the city apologized for the ordeal and said it should have provided the requested materials.

The offer contained an unusual twist. In addition to a financial settlement, Mesa pledged to install a plaque at city hall thanking her for her efforts to make the city more transparent. It said the plaque would be displayed “prominently.”

Zink has a long and tense relationship with the city of Mesa. She was elected mayor in 1989 and took office on Jan. 1, 1990. On Dec. 13, 1990, four of the city’s five council members signed a resolution that censured Zink and requested her immediate resignation for perceived infractions.

She wrote a blistering six-page response that concluded with her censuring her fellow elected leaders, asking them to “please grow up and act their age.”

The Mesa cases are separate from Zink’s successful legal campaign to secure records related to Level 1 sex offenders. Level 1 offenders are those considered the least likely to reoffend and their records had largely been withheld from public release.

In April, the Washington Supreme Court ruled she has a right to the records, including names, addresses and other information. Most but not all Level 1 records have been released.

Wendy Culverwell: 509-582-1514, @WendyCulverwell