An Ohio court ruled North Lewisburg will not have to pay damages or attorney fees after it has already spent more than $16,000 in a dispute with one of its own council members over public records.
The lawyer for the council member, however, planned to appeal, which could send the case to the Ohio Supreme Court.
The case also is an issue in the November election, where eight candidates are running for four council seats.
The Second District Court of Appeals dismissed the case Friday in which Pat Bollack Brown, a member of the council, sought $1,000 in damages as well as attorney fees after her dispute with the village administration was resolved.
The court’s ruling stated that while the law favors “broad access to public records,” Brown’s requests for documents were unnecessary because she already had access to the information through her role as a council member.
“At a time when the public demands and scrutinizes fiscal responsibility, superfluous duplication of documents flies in the face of sound policy when the documents are readily available to the person requesting them by means other than a public records request,” the ruling said.
The village has already spent more than $16,000 in attorney fees since the dispute began, said Andy Yoder, village administrator. He said he was relieved at the court’s decision.
“It wasn’t really a good deal for anybody, I don’t think,” Yoder said of the lengthy court case.
Overall, the village of about 1,500 residents has a general fund budget of about $282,050 this year.
Brown said she was disappointed by the court’s decision but will continue to monitor the village’s spending. Brown said she has received criticism since the case became known but said she had the best interests of residents at heart when she sought the documents.
“My concern for the village is the people aren’t getting the best use for their money,” Brown said.
She also argued that, although the village spend thousands in court costs, the money could have been saved if village officials had simply turned over the documents when she initially requested them.
Chris Finney, Brown’s attorney, said the appeals court’s decision was poorly reasoned. The village was trying to avoid turning over the records simply because Brown had not specifically used the word, “request,” or cited the public records act when seeking the documents, Finney said.
“We’re going to file a motion to reconsider and also an appeal if that’s not successful,” Finney said.
Simply because the village eventually turned over the documents over should not mean they are not responsible for damages and attorney fees, Finney said. He described the case as a matter of principle, holding the village accountable for properly following Ohio’s public records laws.
The lawsuit started in 2012 when Brown said she became concerned about how the village was spending its money. She sought public records that included invoices and purchase orders from 2011 and 2012, as well as checks written to and from the village between January 2011 and January 2012.
However, village officials countered that was unnecessary, because as a council member Brown already receives information on village spending in monthly packets before council meetings. Other financial information is also available to council members upon request.
The case also included a dispute on what defines a public records request. Brown hand-delivered a letter to the village’s fiscal officer seeking information on the village’s finances. But village administrators argued they did not consider Brown’s letter a public records request, but rather a general request for information from a council member.
Ultimately, the dispute over the records was settled out of court when Brown paid $292 for records covering about 13 months of village spending. The appeals court’s ruling focused only on attorney fees and whether Brown was entitled to damages because of the village’s delay in turning over the records.
The case has also stirred controversy among council members and in the upcoming election. Brown is one of eight candidates who have filed to run for four available seats on the council. Some candidates have cited the court case as a reason they are seeking a seat on council. However, Brown said she was only trying to guard the financial interests of residents and said she is not concerned about whether she is re-elected in November.