Independence Examiner, Wednesday 07/24/02, "Local" section

County legislators to debate ruling's effect

Effect on state's Sunshine Law is at issue

By James Dornbrook
The Examiner

Jackson County legislators plan to debate whether the Missouri Sunshine Law has been damaged by a recent court decision and whether county government should spend about $35,000 to fix it.

Bob WitbolsFeugen, who sued the Office of Human Relations and Citizens Complaints under the Sunshine Law, asked the county Legislature to right what he says is an improper court decision.

During the case in question, Turner vs. Garcia, Circuit Court Judge Thomas Clark ruled that the human relations office had violated the Sunshine law in five instances.

Four counts were deemed purposeful, and he assessed about $500 in fines to members of the OHRCC.

However, he did not assess the plaintiff's legal fees to the defendants, saying he did not wish to create an environment where people feared taking public office. That cost plaintiffs Karen Turner and WitbolsFeugen about $35,000 in legal bills.

Meanwhile, the fines and legal bills of members of the OHRCC were taken care of by county government.

"My family has been left near bankruptcy because of a ruling that has been described as 'bizarre' in some of its most charitable characterizations," said WitbolsFeugen. "This happened because political appointees of this county, not answerable to any citizen, have not acted honorably. My fellow litigant Karen Turner and I followed all the rules, but they did not."

WitbolsFeugen said County Counselor Jane McQueeny, who led the defense, purposely caused delays to extend the trial to raise the plaintiffs' legal bills. He said a case where the defendants were so obviously guilty should never have taken two years and that McQueeny never approached the plaintiffs with a settlement offer. He said McQueeny also did not reveal to the judge that the county would pay any fines for the defendants.

WitbolsFeugen said the effect has been the evisceration of the Sunshine Law, the state law that governs public meetings and public records.

He said the decision paved the way for government agencies to get around the law by making it prohibitively expensive for citizens to defend their right to open government.

"So now I am asking you to indemnify me for the legal expenses I incurred while seeking enforcement of the law," said WitbolsFeugen. "I am asking you to authorize payment that a court would have ordered as a matter of course, had the county counselor's office acted honestly and honorably."

After WitbolsFeugen addres sed the Legislature, Chairman Victor Callahan asked McQueeny if she thought it was fair to shift the financial burden to the citizens defending the Sunshine law.

"That is up to the judge to decide," said McQueeny. "Many of the misrepresentations (WitbolsFeugen) has made here today were argued in front of the judge. He could have appealed the decision, but he didn't. If he is unhappy with the result, there is nothing I can do about it now."

McQueeny also said Clark was well aware of the law regarding indemnification and that he is an experienced, capable judge.

As for the allegations about delay tactics and not seeking a settlement, McQueeny said she would have listened to any settlement offers the plaintiffs had, but they didn't bring any forward. WitbolsFeugen said the onus was on the defense to settle the case, since the defendants were obviously guilty.

Legislator Bill Petrie, 2nd District at-large, asked McQueeny if the county would have paid legal fees if they had been assessed. She said it was likely this would have happened.

"What we have here is a guy who successfully proved a county body was in violation of the Sunshine law. Then he was charged $35,000 in legal bills for his efforts," said Callahan. "I'm not sure that this is how this chapter should end."

Legislators will debate whether to pay the legal fees at a future meeting.

To reach James Dornbrook e-mail or call (816) 350-6322.
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