The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

November 21, 2013

CFOG trial date pushed back

By Katie Dahlstrom Herald Assistant Editor
The Clinton Herald

---- — CLINTON — How much the city’s violations of the Open Records law will cost and who will be financially responsible remains unclear after two hours of negotiations between the city of Clinton and the Citizens for Open Government ended in a stalemate Wednesday morning.

The Citizens for Open Government and the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa are suing the city over a series of closed sessions the Clinton City Council held in 2009 and 2010 that ended with the city settling a federal False Claims Act case for $4.5 million.

Seventh Judicial District Chief Judge Marlita Greve on Tuesday filed a ruling stating the city violated the law by refusing to disclose the closed session records after the False Claims Act case was finalized.

In her ruling, Greve also ordered all the records be opened.

CFOG’s attorneys Mike McCarthy, Blake Parker and CFOG representatives along with City Attorney Jeff Farwell, Mayor Mark Vulich and attorney Cynthia Sueppel met with Seventh Judicial District Judge Joel Barrows to discuss the attorneys fees, injunctive relief and fines stemming from the apparent violations, but could not come to an agreement, pushing the trial on the matter to Jan. 30.

CFOG Chairman and Ward 3 Councilman-elect Ed O’Neill said the impasse came because the city agreed to pay the legal fees, but wanted the amount shy of $35,000 to come from city coffers instead of the individual council members’ wallets.

CFOG members want the individual council members, not the taxpayers, to pay.

“Our goal from day one has been accountability on the part of the council members that made the decisions, so we’re going to trial,” O’Neill said. “It’s time these people are held accountable. You can’t just go into secret and do the things these people did and then slough it off and expect the city to pay it.”

Beyond determining where the money will come from, at the heart of the Jan. 30 trial will be whether or not the city council members knowingly violated the law, which will determine what fines the judge imposes.

Under Iowa’s Open Records law, fines of $100 to $500 can be assessed against each member who participated in the violation for each of the six sessions. If the member knowingly violated the law, fines range from $1,000 to $2,500 per closed session.

According to the order issued by Barrows, the new trial date will allow the city to procure additional witnesses and conduct settlement negotiations in light of Greve’s ruling.

A status conference on the case has been scheduled for Jan. 24.

Farwell was not available for comment on Wednesday’s negotiations or whether the city will appeal Greve’s ruling.