Independence Examiner, Friday 09/20/02

Citizens' pursuit of open records earns an honor

By James Dornbrook
The Examiner

Two local citizens who felt financially penalized after fighting for their right to open records and meetings will be awarded the Missouri Press Association Sunshine Award Sept. 28.

Bob WitbolsFeugen of Independence and Karen Turner of Kansas City were selected for the award. The Examiner nominated them.

The pair had won a Sunshine lawsuit against the Jackson County Office of Human Relations and Citizens Complaints. A Jackson County Circuit Court judge agreed that the law had been broken but didn't assess the plaintiff's legal bills as part of the judgment. This left Turner and WitbolsFeugen stuck with about $35,000 in legal bills after winning their case.

"I stand here with my pockets turned out, holding two documents which should have immediately been recognized as open records. Instead, I had to fight a major battle to receive them," WitbolsFeugen said.

WitbolsFeugen said he never believed it would be such a tough battle to get an open record.

"These two citizens won their lawsuit but at a tremendous price," stated MPA President Dane Vernon. "On behalf of the public and the Missouri Press Association, we want them to know how much we appreciate them carrying the banner for open meetings and open records, for the public's right to know and for the First Amendment."

The MPA Sunshine Award was established in 1998. It is designed to honor a person or people who demonstrate unwavering support for open government and the Missouri open meetings and open records laws.

The Turner and WitbolsFeugen Sunshine case came after they launched a complaint against the Jackson County Sheriff's Department with the OHRCC.

While questioning suspects and witnesses in the murder of WitbolsFeugen's daughter, Sheriff's deputies revealed that information came from Turner's daughter, Peige. The release of the name led to several death threats against Peige Turner.

The OHRCC met in closed session to discuss the case and then determined there was not enough evidence to proceed with disciplinary action. No information was released regarding how the decision was reached, and no explanation of what evidence was discussed. This led Turner and WitbolsFeugen to file their Sunshine lawsuit in May 2000.

The case lasted until February 2002, when Judge Thomas Clark ruled the OHRCC had violated the Sunshine law. He assessed fines totaling $500 but decided not to impose the plaintiff's attorney fees onto the defendants, saying it would discourage people from serving on public boards.

The county later paid the OHRCC members' fines out of the county budget. The Jackson County Counselor's office defended the members of the OHRCC, so there were no legal bills for their defense either.

"I am honored to be receiving this award for my efforts to protect the Sunshine Law for the citizens of Missouri," WitbolsFeugen said. "Yes, I have won a victory for the Sunshine Law and proved that a citizen can fight with the Sunshine Law. However, the citizens of Missouri should not rest because what the decision in my case means is no citizen can afford to fight for their rights to open records.

"If it is going to cost as much as it has in my case, then there is little real protection there. The law doesn't protect the citizens as it is, and my case has shown a serious flaw."

WitbolsFeugen has discussed several changes to the Missouri Sunshine Law with state legislators to ensure citizens aren't penalized with legal bills for defending their right to an open government. He plans to continue to be an advocate for these changes until something is done to correct the problems.

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