Legal Intern, Manhattan Institute's Center for Legal Policy
The high cost of litigation in America has been voluminously documented, but the situation facing the small town of Gold Bar, Washington warrants particular focus: The town may have to raise taxes to pay for its legal bills. City council members in the 2,000 person community will be proposing a one-time "levy" of $100 to $150 per home on the November ballot in order to offset the recent spike in the municipality's legal costs.
The town's legal bills are estimated at $90,000, which comprises nearly one sixth of the municipality's $550,000 general fund. The driver of these legal costs has been a series of lawsuits brought under the Public Records Act, resulting from allegations of misbehavior by a former mayor and other city officials. The primary progenitor of the suits has been an activist resident named Anne Block, an attorney by trade and the creator of a controversial "news" website about the town of Gold Bar (critics have claimed the website is mostly a forum for rumors and accusations). In addition to being responsible for five of the six public records lawsuits against Gold Bar, Block has also spearheaded four out of five recall efforts in the town.
The town not only has had to hire a private law firm, but also has spent thousands of dollars complying with the record requests - all of which has led to the sacrifice of other important government services:
The city has paid thousands of dollars to an Issaquah technology company to dissect [former mayor] Hill's personal Blackberry to ferret out her disclosable emails. Gold Bar hired a sixth employee and transferred one of its two maintenance workers into City Hall to help respond to requests, according to the mayor's court affidavit.
[City council member] Wright says they are spending so much on records requests, they can afford to snowplow only the major arterials.
Another option Gold Bar considered was disincorporation, which the city council rejected in favor of the proposed tax increase. If the tax increase is rejected by Gold Bar residents in November, bankruptcy is likely to follow. As for her part, Block appears unapologetic and defiant, saying: "It's safe to assume that I have no plans to throw in the towel." She has even compared her efforts to those of seminal activists of times past:
"What motivates us? Basically, in a nutshell, it's open government and the idea that a handful of people can effectively make change, just like Martin Luther King and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony," Block said.