Public Records Requests to Skagit County yield blackout and then deluge of irrelevant data

Reporting by Christie Stewart Stein

In 2019, Home Rule Skagit, a local organization working for transparency, accountability, and broader representation in Skagit County government made Public Records Requests to look at particular County records related to the campaign they had conducted in 2018. In response to their first request, the 732 documents received from Skagit County Public Information Officer Cori Russell were almost completely blacked out, sometimes including the dates. In response to a second request, 7.128 gigabytes of information were turned over having little to do with the materials requested. What is going on?

In November 2018, Skagit voters opened their ballots to find they were expected to vote on a ballot measure (Proposition 1) about a County Charter. The measure, which had many Skagit voters puzzled and confused, would have begun a process to write a constitution (charter) for Skagit County government. If it had passed, it could have significantly changed the form of government for Skagit County.

Both County Commissioners Ken Dahlstedt and Ron Wesen campaigned heavily and very publicly against the measure. They argued that the current system works fine, and that Skagit’s population of 130,000 isn’t enough to warrant a Charter. They did not mention that a change in the form of Skagit government could have eliminated their fulltime County jobs.

Ron Wesen – “Charter form of government explained”

Presentation by Skagit County Commissioner Ron Wesen
Come out and listen to Skagit County Commissioner Ron Wesen explain what a Charter form of government is; and the pros and cons of a Charter government vs a Commissioner government. Q and A. Event will be on Thursday, October 4th from 7:30 PM to 9 PM at the Dewey Beach Community Center. Located on Deception Road, just off of Highway 20, East on Deception Way (right behind The Shrimp Shack next to Mt. Erie Fire Dept.) 6186 State Route 20, Anacortes 98221. Seating is limited to about 40 people, please RSVP (360) 820-1700.

Ken Dahlstedt “No- on Charter” Presentation

How a Charter Government Could Harm Skagit County
Skagit County Commissioner Ken Dahlstedt will speak about “How a Charter government would harm Skagit County”. Sponsored by the North Puget Sound Association of Realtors on Thursday, September 20th at 11:45 AM. Monthly Realtor meeting located at the Shelter Bay Community Clubhouse, 1000 ShoshoneDrive. La Conner, WA 98257.

During the campaign, neither Commissioner was heard to say at any event, either by witnesses or on video recording, that he was speaking as a private citizen and not as a County Commissioner. By contrast, Commissioner Lisa Janicki attended a Home Rule Skagit (HRS) public presentation at the Burlington Library. When asked her opinion about the Charter proposal, she specifically stated that she was speaking only as a private citizen and not as a Commissioner.

It turns out that it is not permitted to use County resources to campaign for or against a ballot measure unless the Board of Commissioners has voted to take a position on that issue. The Skagit County Board of Commissioners did not take such a vote. HRS wanted to make sure that the campaign activities Commissioners Dahlstedt and Wesen engaged in were proper, and had not been on Skagit taxpayers’ dime. “People in Skagit should be able to find out whether County resources were used improperly.” explained HRS Chairperson Gary Wickman.

On January 31, 2019, HRS submitted a request for all County documents related to the Charter proposal. A copy of the Public Records Request is available online. (Full disclosure: this author was one of those making the request.)

Although the County is required to respond to public records requests within 5 days, HRS did not receive the first installment of documents from Skagit County until February 27, 2019. Virtually every document provided was completely redacted (including the date of some documents), or was in encrypted gibberish. The files were accompanied by blanket claims of attorney/client privilege asserted for any communications between County personnel and the Prosecutor’s Office.

Tim Manns of Home Rule Skagit asked “What was it about emails between county attorneys and our County Commissioners concerning the charter campaign that makes them too sensitive for the public to see? Some email subject lines suggest these communications were about the wording of the charter initiative on the ballot and in the voter pamphlet. These could hardly have been written better to confuse voters.”

Examples of documents received from Skagit County are available online as Example 1 and Example 2.

A number of the documents cited “RCW 42.56.290- records relevant to a controversy” as the reason for the claim of attorney/client privilege. What was the controversy? The fact that the measure was on the ballot? The fact that Commissioners Wesen and Dahlstedt were not happy about it? Here’s how this RCW is defined in Washington State law: “Records that are relevant to a controversy to which an agency is a party but which records would not be available to another party under the rules of pretrial discovery for causes pending in the superior courts are exempt from disclosure under this chapter.” How does this RCW apply here?

In response to the near total blackout, HRS sent a follow up letter to Public Records Officer Cori Russell on March 5, 2019 focusing on the County’s failure to provide the requested information. The letter was delivered in person, and Ms. Russell vigorously assured HRS, “My job is to make sure citizens get the records they need from the County!”

Two additional installments of documents were received on March 25, and April 23, 2019 encompassing about three gigabytes of material. Again, nearly all documents were completely blacked out, and attorney/client privilege was asserted.

Still trying to find out if Commissioners Wesen and Dahlstedt’s campaigning against the Charter measure was “on the clock”, HRS submitted a new Public Records Request specifically for their calendars, time sheets, and schedules in 2018 on Monday, June 17, 2019.

As of this writing, there have been six installments totaling more than 7 gigabytes of files in response to the second request, the last received on October 23, 2019. Not a single calendar, or schedule is included in any of this material. Most documents are email invitations to a meeting/event, and the email accept/decline reply. It would take any citizen endless hours to reconstruct a schedule or calendar out of theses emails.

After four months and six installments, an email request for explanation from Ms. Russell yielded this exchange:

On Oct 23, 2019, at 8:16 AM, Cori Russell corir@co.skagit.wa.us wrote:

Ms. Stein,
Attached is a zip file containing the 6th installment relevant to your records request #19-0276. In your email sent to me Sunday October 20th, you had concerns about time sheets, expense claims and calendars associated with your request. The Commissioners do not use time sheets and as far as scheduling, they received messages via email related to appointments. The weekly agenda also outlines their schedules. In regards to expense sheets, there have been a few emails and expenses provided I believe in the 1st or 2nd installment. Due to the volume of messages for both Commissioners, it is taking me a considerable amount of time to review the records for release. For better identification of the material, I am [bates] sic number each page.
I anticipate your next installment to be available on or about November 1st.
Thank you,
Cori Russell, CPRO
Public Records Officer

—–Original Message—–
From: Christie Stewart Stein
Sent: Wednesday, October 23, 2019 4:06 PM

To: Cori Russell corir@co.skagit.wa.us
Cc: Gary Wickman; Timothy Manns
Subject: Re: Serv-U File Sharing Link [expires ‎11‎/‎01‎/‎2019 ‎12‎:‎00‎:‎00‎ ‎AM]

Thank you, Cori. Just to clarify, are you saying that there is no calendar kept of the commissioners’ daily activities?- Christie

On Oct 24, 2019, at 9:31 AM, Cori Russell corir@co.skagit.wa.us wrote:

Ms. Stein,
The Commissioners use their electronic calendar in Outlook for the scheduling of appointments outside of agenda items.
Thank you,

—–Original Message—–
From: Christie Stewart Stein
Sent: Thursday, October 24, 2019 10:07 AM
To: Cori Russell
Subject: Re: Serv-U File Sharing Link [expires ‎11‎/‎01‎/‎2019 ‎12‎:‎00‎:‎00‎ ‎AM]

And are those calendars not available on a weekly or monthly basis for 2018? It would clearly take a citizen endless hours to reconstruct a calendar from all the email invitations and accept/decline responses.- Christie

On Oct 24, 2019, at 11:04 AM, Cori Russell corir@co.skagit.wa.us wrote:

I will contact the Commissioner’s office and get back to you.
Thank you,

On Oct 24, 2019, at 11:28 AM, Cori Russell corir@co.skagit.wa.us wrote:

Hi Christie,
I am working with the Commissioner’s office on gathering the electronic calendars. I anticipate having that information to you no later than Tuesday. I am out of the office tomorrow.
Thank you,

Did Commissioners Dahlstedt and Wesen improperly use County resources during their vigorous and very public anti-Charter measure campaigning? After nine months and more than 10 gigabytes of blacked out and irrelevant information, the answer to that question remains hidden. We must wonder: Why so much effort to hide it?

Christie Stewart Stein has farmed just west of Mount Vernon for 25 years. Her volunteer engagement in the community has included working with homeless women, farmworkers and Spanish-speaking immigrants, and aspiring young farmers.

1 thought on “Public Records Requests to Skagit County yield blackout and then deluge of irrelevant data

  1. My husband and I found the experience that Christie Stewart Stein had getting records from the county especially interesting. A few years ago we went to the city of Sedro-Woolley to get records from the early 1900s for an article we were reseasrching, and were told to go to the county because some time in the 1970s all city records had been sent to the county to safeguard. None remained in Sedro-Woolley. The county employee from whom we requested the records said she knew nothing about them but was prevailed upon to let us speak to someone who might. She telephoned and said the records aren’t there. So. Did they lose them? Are they too pressed with business to look? Do they not want to bother? And finally, for whom are these records kept if not for people who want to peruse them for any matter that is not any business of the county anyway?

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