Judge Says VSEA Entitled To Legal Fees

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(Host) A Superior Court judge says the state employees union is entitled to recover its legal fees, after it won a public records lawsuit.

The case concerned whether state agencies have the right to make the public pay to review records.

And, as VPR’s John Dillon reports, a similar issue is playing out in the Legislature

(Dillon) The union wanted to look at public records concerning two issues: the firing last year of a wildlife scientist, and the state’s use of software to monitor employee Internet use.

But the state said the union couldn’t look at the documents unless it first paid a $1,300 charge.

The union challenged that charge in court – and won.

Abigail Winters is a lawyer for the state employees union.

(Winters) "I do believe that these types of fees are a way to prevent access and indeed it has worked in this case because we still have not been able to look at the records due to the state’s fee."

(Dillon) Judge Geoffrey Crawford says the state must reimburse the union for the money it spent on the litigation. Crawford ruled that the fee to inspect public records was – quote – "plainly a financial impediment placed in the way of persons seeking access to records."

Crawford said the union is entitled to recover $5,400 in attorneys’ fees, plus another $626 dollars in court costs.

The judge said the state’s position on charging the fees was not supported by law but was instead a "statement of what the administration wished the statute to say rather than what it actually says."

But a bill pending in the Legislature would change the law so the state ­would be allowed to make people pay to inspect documents. It does, however, say the first two hours of searching for records by an agency are free.

But Secretary of State Jim Condos says the bill goes too far. He favors the current law, which allows the state to charge only for copying documents.

(Condos) "This was clearly the intent of the Legislature when they first wrote this law – that inspections should be free and that there should not be a cost. A cost to inspect records is really nothing more than a barrier."

(Dillon) A lawyer for the state said he is reviewing legal options in the employees’ union case.

The state has 30 days to decide whether to appeal.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

(Host) The House is scheduled to debate the public records bill Tuesday. You can find the Legislature’s full schedule, and a link to stream the action live from the House and Senate floors, here.

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