Government should payfor withholding records

Published 9:09 pm Tuesday, August 28, 2007

By Staff
Governments may be less likely to flaunt North Carolina’s laws on opening public records if they knew that they could pay a stiff penalty for doing so.
But that’s not happening, according to an attorney for the North Carolina Press Association.
Some states, including Florida and Texas, allow plaintiffs to automatically recover legal fees when they prove that governments violated public-records laws, said John Bussian, a Raleigh lawyer and lobbyist for the N.C. Press Association, according to a story from The Associated Press.
Think about it. Government officials have no real stake in getting sued unless they are held personally liable. If a government is sued, the taxpayers have to foot the legal bill. If they are sued and lose, taxpayers still have to pay the bill.
Gretchen Lothrop won her suit against the Chatham County Board of Elections over illegal closed meetings, but her legal fees totaled more than $35,000.
A judge last September ruled that three board meetings were not properly publicized ahead of time, thus violating the open meetings law. The board broke the open meetings rules three times and the public records law four times. But Chatham County was ordered to pay just 10 percent of Lothrop’s legal fees, or $3,500.
Lothrop isn’t some “official” member of the media. She’s a resident, an artist — not a reporter or a publisher. Fundraisers, friends, and supporters helped Lothrop pay her lawyers, she said, but we believe they shouldn’t have had to.
For Lothrop, it started several years ago when there was word that the election board was going to start using new ballot counting machines. She asked for minutes of the board’s meetings and was told there weren’t any. That wasn’t true. She kept up her fight and was rebuffed again.
Bussian said North Carolina’s laws are in the “Ice Ages” when it comes to open records.
Automatic recovery ‘‘tends to have a powerful effect,’’ Bussian said.
In Kitty Hawk, a judge did order the town there to pay a substantial part of the legal fees of a newspaper that sued the board. Superior Court Judge Richard Parker said the town should fork over $75,000. The Outer Banks Sentinel was asking for more than $100,000.
The lawsuit happened because town officials refused to release billing records for contract town attorneys. The town argued that they could keep the documents secret because the attorneys worked for a private firm. The Court of Appeals ruled the newspaper was entitled to all the documents. We believe they should have also been entitled to all of their legal expenses in obtaining them.
If governments are simply ignorant of the law, they should make an effort to get educated. If they are unwilling to release records because they feel it might make them look bad, then perhaps we need new people in government.