Independence Examiner, Tuesday 02/12/02

Citizens must shoulder cost of Sunshine lawsuit

By Darla McFarland
The Examiner

   Bob WitbolsFeugen and Karen Turner achieved a bittersweet victory against the Jackson County Office of Human Relations and Citizen Complaints. Last month, they won their lawsuit charging Sunshine Law violations at the agency. On Monday, WitbolsFeugen learned that he would bear the cost of pursuing the case.

   "I am just devastated that the people responsible will not be held accountable for these costs," WitbolsFeugen said Monday afternoon.

   WitbolsFeugen and Turner incurred about $33,000 in legal fees pursuing their case against the OHRCC director and the individual citizens who serve on the OHRCC Commission. The suit did not name the OHRCC agency or the county government as defendants.

   In a final judgment issued Friday, Jackson County Judge Thomas Clark wrote that, "Imposing attorney fees on the citizen-commissioners or the director is not appropriate. Since the plaintiffs did not sue any governmental body including the OHRCC, this court lacks authority to impose plaintiffs' attorney fees on the OHRCC or any governmental body."

   Clark had indicated following the trial that he would prefer to assign the costs to the Jackson County government but was unsure of the legal standing to do so. His decision Friday leaves the plaintiffs responsible for those costs.

   In his decision, Clark also said that imposing the fees on citizen-commissioners might "discourage well-intentioned citizens from serving on local boards and commissions."

   WitbolsFeugen said the judge's decision will only serve to discourage citizens from pursuing open government under the Sunshine Law and will encourage government bodies to ignore the law.

   "The judge seems to feel it is more important that citizens serve their government, rather than government serve the people," WitbolsFeugen said.

   WitbolsFeugen learned of Clark's decision Monday, shortly before addressing the Jackson County Legislature at their regular weekly meeting. WitbolsFeugen told the Legislature that the lawsuit could have been avoided if not for the "meddling" and "machinations" of County Counselor Jane McQueeny. He said McQueeny poorly advised the OHRCC Commission in the conduct of its duties and, then, raised the costs of the lawsuit through lengthy pre-trial motions and objections.

   Legislative Chairman Victor Callahan agreed with WitbolsFeugen's assessment.

   "My view is that Jane McQueeny allowed this thing to go forward for two years and cost the county and the taxpayers thousands of dollars when it could have been settled along time ago without going to court," Callahan said.

   County Executive Katheryn Shields declined to comment on McQueeny's actions in the case.

   "I am very sorry for what happened to Mr. WitbolsFeugen and his family and I regret if the OHRCC did not respond as they should have under the Sunshine Law," Shields said.

   She also said that each county commission has been assigned an attorney to help avoid Sunshine Law problems in the future.

To reach Darla McFarland e-mail or call her at 816-350-6321.

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