New mayor asks sheriff to investigate missing computer, records
Case gaining statewide notice
A computer used by Coulee Dam’s former mayor is missing, and the new mayor has asked the sheriff to investigate the possible theft of public property and destruction of public records.
Newly elected Mayor Greg Wilder said when he entered the office at the beginning of the year, a brand new computer was already there for his use. It had never been used, and no files existed on its hard drive.
Wilder, who defeated Quincy Snow in the mayoral race last fall, had earlier lodged a complaint with the state Public Disclosure Commission alleging the improper use of town resources for Snow’s campaign, including the use of the computer and the town’s e-mail services.
“After a bit of looking and searching, our police chief (Pat Collins) informed me that it had just ‘disappeared’ not long ago from one of his department’s locked storage rooms,” Wilder wrote to Douglas County Sheriff Harvey Gjesdal Jan. 2. “Even through the room contained more and better ‘electronics,’ nothing else was taken or lost – just the mayor’s old computer!”
Police Chief Pat Collins wrote in a police report that last Nov. 14, then-mayor Snow had called him to ask why the police department server room door had been left open. He wrote that Snow said he had closed the door and one to another storage room that he had also found open.
At that point, Collins asked the city foreman to put a padlock on the door “as any grand master (key) for City Hall would open the door.”
Wilder said he found no backups of data from the computer. “In fact, there are no records of any notes, schedules, or other public records relating to Snow to be found,” Wilder noted.
Wilder had filed a public records request of the town in October, seeking “Each and every e-mail sent to or received by: email@example.com from January 1, 2013 and ending on October 31, 2013.” The town clerk advised him that the records would be unavailable until Jan. 15, 2014.
Consulting with his attorney, Wilder decided to bide his time until after the election, which seemed to be going his way. He would have access if he took office.
He took office Jan. 2, and no files can be found.
Monday, the Washington Coalition for Open Government, a statewide advocacy group, called on local and state authorities to investigate the alleged disappearance of the computer.
The coalition, President Toby Nixon said in a statement, “is deeply concerned about Wilder’s report. … The potential theft or destruction of public records such as official e-mail messages could be a felony under state law.”
“At a minimum,” Nixon continued, “the public deserves an explanation for the missing computer and records. Even if the former mayor’s computer had been properly surplused, which does not appear to be the case, the town was legally required to retain the hard drive. State law requires all communications like those to and from the mayor to be retained and transferred to the state archives for assessment and archival storage.”
Jason Mercier, director of the Center for Government Reform at the Washington Policy Center, used the case Monday in his blog to slam legislation proposed last year that would allow governments in the state to determine when a public records request could be deemed “harassment” of the government by an individual, a term frequently used to describe Wilder’s requests over the last two years.
“While (hopefully) this experience in Coulee Dam is not the norm across Washington,” Mercier wrote, “it does underscore the danger of allowing government officials to decide if someone is a ‘harassing requester’ and deny access to public records.”