Independence Examiner, Wednesday 05/01/02

Counselor opts not to track hours

by James Dornbrook
The Examiner

After saying she gave the matter careful scrutiny, Jackson County Counselor Jane McQueeny denied legislators' request for her office to start recording how much time counselors spend working on cases.

"If we carry these records, such information could be requested under the Sunshine Law. It could be used by opposing counsel to harm our case or by someone who wishes to embarrass the county," said McQueeny. "Private lawyers are not subject to the Sunshine Law as we are. Yet one of the primary concerns of private lawyers is client confidentiality."

The reason the Jackson County Legislature asked McQueeny to begin keeping records was because she couldn't answer questions of legislators on how much time and money the county counselor's office spent defending a recent Sunshine lawsuit McQueeny said she couldn't answer the questions, because her office doesn't keep those records.

"The client in this case (Turner vs Garcia) was the Office of Human Relations and Citizens Complaints. Our obligation was to them," said McQueeny. "The legislator (asking questions) and the Legislature were not a party to the case. Ultimately, we were concerned that this was not in the best interest of our client to divulge this information."

Legislators were not persuaded.

"When we have a continuation of requests for information and a refusal to supply that information to the legislature, something is very wrong," said Legislator Ron Finley, 2nd District believe some people may have had an agenda for that information, but despite this, it was still a legitimate request."

Legislator Dan Tarwater, 4th District, also disagreed with McQueeny.

"We're here for one reason: to provide fair and open government to the citizens of Jackson County. Really, what you're doing is just a smokescreen to hide stuff and he said.

Legislative Chairman Victor Callahan said he was confused by McQueeny's testimony. He said during a hearing on why the county counselor's office was not pursuing delinquent tax payers, McQueeny testified that her office kept records on how many lawyers were being used and gave an estimate of time spent pursuing cases.

"What I don't understand is that when the legislative auditor finds something you suddenly find it necessary to track time, but not in a lawsuit," said Callahan. "Jane, when you're done here, I think you have a good job waiting for you in the tobacco industry."

Callahan was also concerned about how the counselor's office initially described the Sunshine lawsuit, and how it turned out.

"Turner VS. Garcia was described to us by you as a frivolous case, yet it is still ongoing. So I guess there must have been some merit to it. We still have no idea of how much was spent," Callahan said.

"Mr. Chairman, I've answered that question. There were $600 in depositions, and we don't keep track of time spent on cases," said McQueeny. "If we had to pay Mr. Haden (Deputy Counselor Jay Haden) by an hourly rate, we wouldn't be able to afford him."

"Certainly no one is advocating changing the way we pay our counselors," said Finley. "You know, the Legislature could be concerned about the level of information provided to us and our confidence in the information coming from your office when it comes time for you to make a budget presentation."

"I would hate to think that this Legislature would penalize my office for looking out for the best interest of our clients," said McQueeny. "You want us to produce records you think exist, but don't."

McQueeny said she didn't want to keep time records because she didn't want them used in some way which would be detrimental to the people her office represents.

Legislator Terry Young, 5th District, took exception to McQueeny's stance.

"I disagree with you on your concerns regarding the Sunshine Law," said Young. "It seems to me, you are afraid of the Sunshine Law, and that is a dangerous precedent to set."

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