WHEN SEATTLE Displacement Coalition leader John Fox—an avid watchdog of the mayor's development plans for South Lake Union—filed a records request with the city's Department of Transportation (SDOT), he expected to have to sift through a sizeable pile of paper. What he didn't expect was that SDOT would write letters to hundreds of South Lake Union property owners informing them of their right to protest his request.
In his request, Fox asked SDOT for documents detailing how much property-value increase property owners in South Lake Union would realize from the mayor's proposed $47.5 million streetcar. The property owners would be part of a special taxing district, known as a Local Improvement District, or LID.
Fox says SDOT's letter, which informs property owners of their "legal right... to bring a legal action to enjoin the release of any records you believe may not be subject to disclosure," was "almost like an invitation encouraging these folks to go to court" to challenge his request. "It's certainly not something I've experienced before, and I've submitted a lot of public-records requests."
SDOT public disclosure officer Gary Finlayson acknowledged that the letter was unusual, noting that in the last several years he has sent out just "four or five" such notifications. Finlayson added, however, that third-party notices are "fairly standard practice if we determine that there's a sensitive issue," such as tax assessments in South Lake Union. "We have no reason or right to withhold the records. We're going to give him what he wants." However, Finlayson says, "because it's sensitive, we want to give them the opportunity to go to a judge and... try to convince the judge that we shouldn't release this information."
Fox says the SDOT notification has had one ironic unintended consequence: So far, two property owners have contacted him to express their opposition to the LID. So instead of organizing supporters of the LID against his public-disclosure efforts, Fox chuckled, SDOT is unwittingly "helping to organize the opposition."