Independence Examiner, Tuesday 04/09/02

Stalemate continues over counselor fees

by James Dornbrook
The Examiner

Not satisfied with the answers they received last week, Jackson County legislators once again grilled County Counselor Jane McQueeny on money spent defending the Office of Human Relations and Citizen Comp laints.

The office was recently found in violation of the Sunshine Law and fined. The judge did not assess the plaintiff's legal fees to the members found in violation, which is allowed in a case like this.

With the legal fees not being assessed, the plaintiffs brought forward a post trial motion in protest. They voiced concern that the county counselor's office purposely tried to raise the cost of the trial to discourage people from filing Sunshine lawsuits in the future, and got away with it when attorney fees weren't assessed. The plaintiffs were especially concerned about this situation, saying this case was a clear violation of the Sunshine Law.

This brought forward questions from Jackson County Legislators about how much time and money was spent by the County Counselors office defending this case.

Legislator Bill Petrie, 2nd District At-large, asked McQueeny if she was ready to give an answer yet regarding how much time and money was spent on the case.

McQueeny said the cost of filing depositions was $669, but she can't answer how many hours were spent because counselors don't keep track of their time. She said she asked city attorneys in Independence and other cities if they kept track of time and was told they don't either. She added that the International Municipal Lawyers Association told her its not common practice.

"First you tell us that you'd be willing to discuss this in closed session, then you tell us you don't have the answer," said Petrie. "I would like a clear answer of how much time was spent and how much this cost. A ballpark figure will do."

"My clients asked that this not be discussed in public and I have tried to be respectful of that. I would hope that the County Legislature would, too," McQueeny responded. "I can tell you that the deposition cost $669 and that six or seven counselors worked on the case. I can't tell you how much time because we don't keep track. That's the best I can do."

Legislator Fred Arbanas, 2nd District At-Large, said despite what other government attorneys are doing, it probably would be a good idea for Jackson County counselors to get into the habit of tracking their time. That way situations like this could be avoided in the future.

"Then you can see what people are doing and whether they're wasting time or not," said Arbanas.

"I think that is an excellent idea," said McQueeny. "I'm certainly willing to explore that."

Legislator Ron Finley, 2nd District, asked if McQueeny could start tracking right away. McQueeny said she would like to discuss the idea with her staff before they implement anything. Finley said that would be fine, but he wants a report on her decision in two weeks.

Legislator Terry Young, 5th District, said she agreed with Arbanas that Jackson County counselors should track their time. Young asked McQueeny how she knows whether she needs more help in her department, if counselors aren't tracking time.

"That depends on the number of cases and how complex they are," answered McQueeny.

Petrie then asked for some kind of summary regarding the case, so they could determine how involved it was.

"I think that might fall under attorney/client privilege," said McQueeny.

"I haven't asked any questions requesting privileged information here. The things I've asked for should be public information... I'm asking questions but I'm not getting any answers," said Petrie.

"What I want you to understand is there is no answer to your question," said McQueeny.

To reach James Dornbrook e-mail or call 350-6322.
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