Public agencies should learn from costly lessons

Failure to follow the rules costs money. And usually it's the everyday citizen who ends up paying the fines or fees.

But in one recent case, a government agency that failed to follow the rules is paying a citizen $30,000 to rectify the mistake.

The Benton Clean Air Authority reached a settlement with Larry Loges over a disputed public records request. According to Loges, officials failed to respond correctly to three public records requests he made in 2008. He sued the Benton Clean Air Authority in 2009.

The case was dismissed over some technicalities, but Loges appealed. Rather than continue the costly legal battle, the agency settled, but with some conditions. Loges can't make further public records requests regarding the documents he originally asked for. He also must drop the appeal.

And the executive director of the Benton Clean Air Authority said past history shows the appeals court tends to rule against government agencies in similar cases.

A confidentiality clause in the settlement was dropped after this newspaper argued that when an agency spends public money to settle a lawsuit, the details can't be kept secret.

Loges has been fighting the government in one way or another since the 1990s.

It is not the first settlement Loges has received over a public records lawsuit. Prosser paid him $175,000 over a similar matter.

Public records laws are in place for a reason. How the public's money is spent and how agencies do their business is everyone's business. The city of Mesa learned that the hard way, when it was ordered by the courts to pay nearly $250,000 -- the equivalent of its annual budget -- because it did not follow the state's open records law. The city may end up in bankruptcy as a result.

There are certainly cheaper ways to learn about the state's sunshine laws. Start with the Washington Coalition for Open Government's website at www.washingtoncog.org.

Loges may be a thorn in the side of local government and public agencies, but he has taught them a valuable lesson -- and it's hoped he saved them from costlier mistakes down the road.

The law is the law, regardless of who's making the public records request or what a nuisance they may seem to be.