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A sticky legal question about whether a form Okanogan County uses is a public document or privileged legal advice is at the heart of a lawsuit between the county and the Methow Valley Citizens Council.

The council filed a public records request for a checklist the county uses to determine if water is legally available for residential development. The council says the public has a right to understand how the county makes decisions about permits for development.

The county says the memo, prepared by an attorney for the county, is an interpretation of a court ruling regarding water and is therefore protected by attorney/client privilege.

Our friends at the Methow Valley News report that at a hearing late last month, Citzens Council attorney Paul Lawrence said the document is one of several checklists the county uses as part of its permitting process.

Lawrence also said Okanogan County Planning Director Pete Palmer updated the county commissioners about her use of the checklist at open public meetings.

Palmer uses the checklist as part of a process to determine whether a proposed development is supported by legally available water. Because the permit is denied if there’s no legal water, and issued if there is a legal source of water, Lawrence contends it’s a “make or break” decision in permitting.

But Okanogan County disagrees with that. Okanogan County attorney Sophia Amberson said the form Palmer uses is “quintessential legal advice.” She said it’s a memo prepared by the county’s legal counsel, at the request of the county, regarding interpretation of a 2021 court ruling. She added that Palmer uses the memo to refresh her memory and reference law about the county’s legal obligations.

The Public Records Act requires that all public records maintained by state and local agencies be made available to all members of the public. There are narrow exemptions, including personal and financial information and privileged attorney/client communications.

Amberson contends that Okanogan County has bent over backward to keep the public informed, including posting permitting information on its website, and even providing redacted copies of the checklist to the Citizens Council. But she said the county can’t hand over protected legal advice to the public — and called it the “end of argument.”

There's much more on this at methowvalleynews-dot-com.

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