(Host) Should government agencies pay legal fees if they lose lawsuits after denying access to public records? Vermont media organizations think so. But a bill in the Senate Judiciary Committee faces opposition from the Douglas administration and local government officials.
VPR’s John Dillon reports.
(Dillon) Oliver Olsen of Jamaica, Vermont was stopped for speeding in Windham County last year. He contested the $79 fine because he felt he had obeyed the speed limit. So Olsen came to the Statehouse last week to tell his story about a lengthy attempt to acquire documents from the Windham County Sheriff’s Department.
The speeding charge was eventually dismissed. But along the way, Olsen says he was stonewalled when he tried to get public records in the case. He wanted the officer’s notes and information on the accuracy of the radar gun used in his traffic stop.
(Olsen) “I went back and made a second request after further study of the law and was again denied on the grounds that they had a policy requiring my request to be made in writing. I asked for a copy of that policy so I could submit my request in writing in conformance with their supposed policy. And I was told that they could not give me a copy of the policy – that the policy itself was not a public record.”
(Dillon) Olsen and others argue that government agencies would be less likely to keep documents secret if they knew they had to pay attorney’s fees if they violated the law. That’s the change being pushed by media organizations as they try to strengthen Vermont’s access to public records law.
Right now, courts have the option of ordering the government to pay legal fees if they lose a public records fight. But it’s very rarely used. Advocates would like to see the recovery of legal fees made mandatory. The Douglas Administration is skeptical. William Reynolds, a lawyer with the Human Resources Department, testified for the administration.
(Reynolds) “The mandatory attorney’s fees provision will potentially lead to further abuses of [the] public records act. And there have been abuses.”
(Dillon) Reynolds says the issue is better addressed through training and improved records management.
But Ross Connelly, editor and co-publisher of the Hardwick Gazette, says the bill would be a big help. Connelly has tried to get records from the Attorney General’s office related to an investigation of the Hardwick Police Department. His small newspaper doesn’t have the money to wage a lengthy legal battle.
(Connelly) “The attorney I’ve spoken with said it could cost $5,000 to $10,000. And well, I have no way of absorbing that kind of cost. And that means unless I can persuade the attorney to take it on contingency, I’m stopped.”
(Dillon) Governor Jim Douglas has concerns about the legislation. He said it may make sense in public records cases to require the winner in either side to pay the loser’s litigation costs.
(Douglas) “The other question, as in the case in some countries, is whether both sides should be subject to the same privilege.”
(Dillon) The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to vote on the bill later this week.
For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.