By Carey Restino
The city of Homer has prevailed in a long-standing case between the Homer City Council and Homer resident and perpetual planning and zoning watchdog Frank Griswold concerning Griswold’s request to see city emails.
The case went all the way to the Supreme Court of Alaska, which ruled last week against Griswold’s appeal and upheld the Superior Court’s decision that the city had done everything it could to comply with Griswold’s request for emails through a public records request and ordered Griswold to pay 55 percent of the city’s attorney’s fees in the case.
Griswold said in an email response that he was denied due process by not being allowed to question witnesses at a hearing held at the city council level.
“Open government not,” he wrote, alleging that the city manager and his staff illegally deleted incriminating emails regarding the ill-fated Town Square and City Hall project.
The case stems back to 2008, when the city of Homer created a brochure using municipal funds entitled “Questions and Answers about Homer Town Square and the New City Hall” during a bond proposition vote on the proposed development. Griswold alleged that the brochure constituted a misuse of city funds to influence a ballot measure outcome. The Alaska Public Offices Commission agreed and fined the city $400.
After that, Griswold made a public records request for any documents relating to the brochure. A second public records request sought emails sent to and from certain officials and contractors, the court documents said.
City manager Walt Wrede denied that request, citing code that allowed the city manager to determine that a request was made for the purpose of harassment. Griswold appealed and the superior court ruled in Griswold’s favor.
After a hiatus in the exchange, Griswold filed his request again. This time, the city complied but Wrede responded that some emails were missing because the city did not back up all incoming and outgoing emails. Wrede than said later the city was able to retrieve all the emails.
Griswold appealed to the city council, claiming the email search was inadequate and that the city had unlawfully failed to preserve public records. The council found that Wrede had made a good faith effort to respond. Griswold appealed to the Superior Court, arguing that he should have been allowed to present additional evidence. The court held an evidentiary hearing, but Griswold did not submit any additional material. The court then ruled that the council was correct – that the city had complied with code and made a good-faith effort to locate records, purchasing “state of the art record retrieval software to more fully comply with Griswold’s request.”
In addition, the city testified that it had expended significant city time working on the records request. The city’s computer systems manager estimated he spent 40 to 50 hours searching email records that were responsive to Griswold’s request.
The supreme court did not take up the issue of whether the city was in violation of the Records Management Act and destroyed records it should have retained because it was not part of the litigation application.
The superior court ordered Griswold to pay the city council $11,891 – 55 percent of the attorney’s fees incurred.
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