A lawsuit between the city of Centralia and The Chronicle over public records has reached an out-of-court settlement. According to court documents, the city will have to pay $14,650 to The Chronicle to cover the newspaper’s legal fees. The city also agrees to release all future evaluations of city managers.

    In exchange, The Chronicle has agreed to dismiss a lawsuit filed in July to force the city to release the records of former City Manager Patrick Sorensen.

    The city agreed to the settlement Tuesday night after a closed-door executive session. City Attorney Shannon Murphy-Olson could not immediately provide details of how much the city spent defending the lawsuit, but she said she could provide it after the Chronicle makes another formal public records request.

    In July of last year, The Chronicle filed a lawsuit with the city after it repeatedly denied the newspaper’s requests for the release of performance evaluations of Sorensen, who abruptly resigned in March citing “philosophical” differences with city council members. Sorensen was hired in February of 2009. Chronicle reporter Adam Pearson filed a request under the state Public Records Act the same day, asking for disclosure of the evaluations that began before Sorensen’s departure.

    Sorensen was paid $69,600 — compensation equivalent to six months of his nearly $127,000 annual salary — following his departure. Murphy-Olson had been receiving additional compensation of up to $10,000 in her role as interim city manager. Rob Hill, who left Susanville, Calif., as its city administrator, began his job as Centralia’s new city manager in September.

    Hill said he didn’t have any specific comments relating to the lawsuit because it dealt with a city employee who was there before his tenure. He said he did not have a problem with any potential future evaluations of his performance being made public.

    “It’s of no concern to me, I have nothing to hide,” Hill said.

    He said he believes in government transparency, but he stands by the decision the city council made on initially not releasing the documents, again noting the situation occurred before his tenure.

    “I am in no position to second-guess what the city decided,” Hill said. “I just want to move on and continue doing my job.”

    City officials had initially said they wouldn’t release the performance evaluation because they said if it were made public, they would not be able to honestly and openly evaluate future city managers.

    However, Mayor Harlan Thompson now says that although a city manager’s evaluation can be made public, he still felt he could give an honest assessment. He said he did agree with the city initially not disclosing the evaluation because Sorensen had requested it not be released. Sorensen had the opportunity to obtain a court order barring the release of the documents, “but he didn’t so we released it and that was the end of it,” Thompson said.

    City Councilwoman Edna Fund said she didn’t like the city “having to pay out any money for this sort of thing,” and that an evaluation potentially being made public is a “touchy” situation. She noted she used to work as an administrator for vocational rehabilitation employees with the state and had to conduct several employee evaluations. She said whether or not an evaluation is made public, it is her duty to give an honest one in order to help the employee improve and do the best job he or she possibly can.

    Sorensen now works as the manager of the Lake Whatcom Water and Sewer District in Bellingham. The Chronicle contacted Sorensen this morning. He said he wasn’t aware of the settlement, but said upon learning a city manager’s evaluation can be made public that the outcome was an “interesting part of the judicial process.”

    Chronicle Executive Editor Michael Wagar said he agreed to a settlement rather than taking the lawsuit to court because the city agreed to release the public records requested in the future.

    “We didn’t feel it was necessary to pursue this in court,” Wagar said. “We’re not happy the city had to pay ...  when they could’ve released the records initially.”

    He noted that if The Chronicle had chosen the route of court proceedings, he believes the paper would’ve had a “strong case,” because of the support of the Allied Law Group, the Seattle law firm representing the newspaper against the city.

    He said he hopes the settlement will be a reminder to all governments of their responsibility to inform the public of how they conduct business.

    “I hope this sends a clear message to Centralia city government and all governments across Lewis County it’s their duty to provide a transparent government,” Wagar said.

     Wagar said state law is firm in requiring public agencies to release documents, not withhold them, as their first impulse.

    “There was more valid information in those documents than what the city had said why (Sorensen left),” Wagar said. “After Sorensen was let go, we had no idea why and we thought it was appropriate to find out and let the public know.”

    The Chronicle’s position was supported, he noted, by statements from Assistant Attorney General for Government Accountability Tim Ford. Ford wrote in an e-mail to Murphy-Olson indicating that under the state’s Public Records Act, evaluations of a city manager are of a “legitimate public interest.”

    Murphy-Olson had sent a statement to The Chronicle the day The Chronicle sued the city saying the city was standing by her original position that the case of Dawson v. Daly controls the non-disclosure of routine performance evaluations.

    “It is very apparent that the city and The Chronicle are at odds on the interpretation of Washington state law in this area,” she wrote. “The city strongly supports transparent government, but there still remain a few areas that require protection of employee privacy.”

    The city eventually released Sorensen’s evaluation in August of last year, five months after the initial records request and one month after The Chronicle sued for their release.

    The documents said Sorensen did not “seem to know how to work in the high-octane Lewis County political environment” when it came to balancing the budget, working with the City Council and working with higher elected officials and managing city personnel. It documented numerous council members stating they were not happy with Sorensen’s performance with community relations and “not having respect” for elected women in positions with titles.

•••

    Rachel Thomson: (360) 807-8245

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