Lawsuit filed in Blaine County records dispute

(UPDATED, June 15, with more information on the request for cell phone records.)

A protracted public records battle in the Blaine County School District could be heading to court.

Two patrons and a citizens’ group, the Coalition for Blaine County School District Accountability, filed a lawsuit Wednesday, seeking school officials’ emails and telephone records. (Click here to download the lawsuit.)

The lawsuit outlines a series of access disputes:

  • In January, Pamela Plowman sought two months’ worth of email correspondence between Blaine County Prosecutor Jim Thomas and district officials. She was told the district had identified 704 such emails, and was told she would have to pay $3,210 for copies.
  • Plowman requested office phone records for Superintendent GwenCarol Holmes, assistant superintendent John Blackman and district spokeswoman Heather Crocker. The district denied the request, and said it would cost $376.62 to compile the records.
  • Plowman requested cell phone bills and records for Holmes, Blackman and Crocker. The district provided cell phone records for Holmes, Blackman and Crocker — a point the plaintiffs concede — but only a summary of Holmes’ records. And that becomes a matter of dispute. The plaintiffs say these records were readily available, but district officials did not attempt to request them from their cellular carrier. The district says it never had possession of these records, and as a result, the public records law does not apply to them.
GwenCarol Holmes
Blaine County superintendent GwenCarol Holmes

“It is the Blaine County School District’s desire to comply with the law,” Holmes said in a statement Thursday. However, she said the district has never possessed the phone records in question. She also said public agencies have the right to collect fees for public records that take more than two hours to compile, and can collect copying fees for records exceeding 100 pages.

In a statement Thursday night, Plowman criticized district officials for hiring outside legal counsel instead of simply complying with the records requests.

“We had no choice but to hire an attorney,” she said. “We thought this issue was so important that we decided to fund this out of our own pockets to protect the rights of the public.”

The records in question cover a time of turbulence in the Blaine County district, as trustees wrestled with a contract extension for Holmes. Late last year, Thomas told trustees they had discussed the contract in an illegal closed meeting. As a result, the board started the process over, and awarded the contract extension in January.