Independence Examiner, Wednesday 08/06/02

County seeks advice on Sunshine Law

By James Dornbrook
The Examiner

The Jackson County Legislature is planning to hire an impartial lawyer for advice on a recent Sunshine Law case called Turner Vs. Garcia.

The plaintiffs, Karen Turner and Bob WitbolsFeugen, successfully proved to Circuit Court Judge Thomas Clark that the Jackson County Office of Human Relations and Citizens Complaints improperly denied access to records and information.

Members of the OHRCC were fined about $500. However, the judge did not grant legal fees, which are often granted when the plaintiffs win their case.

Judge Clark stated that he didn't grant legal fees because he was concerned about the effect it might have on getting people to run for office.

In the end, the defendants were indemnified, having their fines and legal defense paid by the county. The plaintiffs were left with legal bills over $35,000.

WitbolsFeugen appealed to the Jackson County Legislature to grant him indemnification also for fighting for open government. The matter was referred to the Rules Committee, which hasn't met in several years.

The Rules Committee heard advice from Deputy County Counselor Jay Haden, who said state statutes may prohibit the Legislature from paying the plaintiff's legal bills. Haden said this is not a settlement of a lawsuit and that the case is over.

"I think this presents a significant hurdle as far as this body allocating funds to Mr. WitbolsFeugen," said Haden.

Haden also said WitbolsFeugen could appeal the decision of the OHRCC to the Legislature, but anything the legislature would say about the case would only be a recommendation to the OHRCC.

Committee members continued to voice concerned about the case, saying there were still aspects for the Rules Committee to investigate.

"I think what's troubling to this body is that the County Counselor's office didn't make it clear to Judge Clark our policy about indemnification," said Victor Callahan, chairman of the Jackson County Legislature. "The broader policy issue here is about whether this is where we want to leave the Sunshine Law. ... I think what we need to do is review the policies and procedures of the County Counselor's office."

Callahan recommended that the committee find an impartial lawyer with no connections to County Executive Katheryn Shields or anyone else in the administration. He said this lawyer could give an independent review of the advice given to the committee by Haden, about indemnifying the plaintiffs in Turner Vs. Garcia.

Legislator Fred Arbanas, 3rd District At-Large, recommended the committee ask members of the full Jackson County Legislature to submit a list of possible attorneys for this task. Then the Rules Committee could select someone.

Legislator Scott Burnett, 1st District, said it would be necessary for the Rules Committee to put together a list of questions it wanted answered before retaining counsel. Other legislators agreed.

Arbanas said the questions that are put together should include preventative advice.

"It's important for us to review our ordinances and make changes so we can address this situation if it occurs again in the future," said Arbanas.

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