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Friday, January 28, 2011

Knight FOI Fund case compels public records release in upstate NY

from NFOIC.org:
COLUMBIA, Mo. (January 27, 2011)—A New York judge, ruling in a case supported by a Knight FOI Fund grant, has ordered disclosure of records sought by a Web publisher and a community activist regarding a volunteer fire company.

But in the same 13-page ruling, Warren County (NY) Supreme Court Judge David B. Krogmann held that many of the meetings of the Chestertown Volunteer Fire Company are of a "social" or "private nature," and are not subject to the state's Open Meetings Law.

June Maxam, editor and publisher of The North Country Gazette, and Christine Hayes, a deputy zoning administrator and assistant assessor for the Town of Horicon, NY, who represented themselves in the lawsuit filed on September 15, indicated that they planned to appeal the ruling.

Noting that they had represented themselves and therefore had no attorney bills, Judge Krogmann also declined to award the two women reimbursement for their legal fees and expenses. As offset for the fee reimbursements Maxam and Hayes had sought, Krogmann ordered that copying charges for the records being sought be waived. Maxam disputes the judge’s finding that she and Hayes incurred no legal bills.

Open government advocates expressed dismay over portions of the ruling, although Maxam and Hayes will be getting the records that were at the heart of the legal case after Krogmann completes an in camera judicial review to allow redaction of exempt, personal or private information..

"If they choose to appeal as they say they will, I hope some member of the New York bar who believes in open government will step forward and aid these petitioners in their important legal battle," said Kenneth F. Bunting, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition (NFOIC).

"I know that finding volunteer legal representation is especially difficult when a judge has already ruled against granting fees and expenses. But there is much more at stake here than just a community squabble," Bunting added.

"It seems that the court did not thoroughly consider the breadth of the decision rendered by the state's highest court more than 30 years ago," said Robert J. Freeman, executive director of the New York State Committee on Open Government, a division of the Secretary of State's office that issues advisory opinions on open government matters.

Referring to a 1980 state Court of Appeals ruling in a case called Westchester Rockland Newspapers Inc. v. Kimball, Freeman added: "Based on that [Westchester] decision, it has been our view that meetings of volunteer fire companies are subject to the requirements of the Open Meetings Law."
Read the rest here.

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