Judge blocks disclosure of City of Bellingham report

BELLINGHAM - Whatcom County Superior Court Judge Steven Mura has blocked public disclosure of a city-prepared report that was critical of a local construction firm.

Mura also ordered the report concerning Matia Contractors destroyed if The Bellingham Herald does not file an appeal of his ruling within 30 days.

The Bellingham Herald had asked for a copy of the report, arguing that it should be considered a public record under the Washington Public Records Act. Matia then went to court to block the disclosure.

Greg Overstreet, attorney for The Bellingham Herald, argued that the city of Bellingham could not withhold the report unless Matia could show that it was covered by a specific legal exemption under the public records act.

Tymon Berger, an attorney representing Matia Contractors, argued that judges have broad authority to order the withholding or the destruction of a public record. He cited no exemptions under the public records act. Instead, he argued that the court should uphold an earlier arbitrator's ruling that the city report about Matia contained false information that would be damaging to his client, and should therefore be destroyed.

Mura sided with Matia. At first, he said he intended to order the record withheld but not destroyed, adding "I think the arbitrator went beyond his authority in ordering the destruction."

But Berger pressed for an order of destruction, arguing that nothing in the public records act restricted Mura's power to do so. Mura agreed.

"We have a public record that contains false and erroneous information that would damage the plaintiff," Mura said.

The Bellingham Herald has yet to decide whether to appeal Mura's ruling, although Overstreet told Mura it was "reversible error" to withhold or destroy a public record without citing the legal exemption to its disclosure under state law.

The records issue stems from the arbitrator's ruling against the city in its dispute with Matia Contractors over renovations at Joe Martin Field. In siding with Matia, arbitrator J. Richard Manning ruled in late July 2009 that the city had committed "substantial breaches of the contract" with Matia, which had been hired to install drainage and sprinkler pipe, new ball field soil and turf.

The arbitrator ordered the city to pay Matia an additional $240,000 and ordered the destruction of the report critical of Matia that was prepared by a city engineer.