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Citizens shouldn’t pay if they beat city hall, July 25, 2008

Citizens shouldn't pay if they beat city hall

Winning a public records suit can leave plaintiffs with high legal bills. That should change, and more should be done to resolve disputes out of court.

Even citizens who can beat city hall often can't afford the cost.

If a local government breaks the state's public records law, the only remedy may be for someone to file a lawsuit. Going to court is expensive, though, and even if the plaintiff wins the case he may be stuck with thousands of dollars in attorneys' fees.

That discourages most people from even trying to beat city hall.

A bill approved unanimously by the state Senate last week would have changed that. When it reached the House, however, it was sent by Speaker Joe Hackney to a committee with orders to kill it.

Hackney could have done that in response to objections from local governments and public hospitals that don't want to give up their advantages. But he deserves the benefit of the doubt. Legislators were trying to wrap up their session and go home. There wasn't much time to give the bill full consideration. Supporters should try again next year.

The measure's key passage said the court shall order defendants to pay "reasonable attorneys' fees" to plaintiffs successfully compelling the disclosure of public records. That's a perfectly fair premise: The ones who violated the law should compensate those who forced compliance.

But that wasn't the only helpful portion of the legislation, introduced by Sen. David Hoyle, D-Gaston.

It would create an "Open Government Unit" in the N.C. Department of Justice with the mission of educating the public and government agencies of their rights and responsibilities under the public records and open meetings laws; moderating or mediating disputes about public records and open meetings and issuing advisory opinions; and collecting relevant state laws, regulations and court rulings.

This service could resolve conflicts before citizens are forced to file lawsuits. Surely, a city, county or state agency would respond positively if advised by the Justice Department that requested records must by law be provided to the public or that meetings must be conducted with doors open.

Going to court would remain an option, but it should be an avenue of last resort. If they are forced to take that route, however, and they eventually prevail, citizens should expect to recover the money they spent fighting city hall.

The only regret in such a case would be that taxpayers likely would bear the cost of their government's refusal to abide by the law. In instances like that, voters would have to exercise one more right: changing the people who run city hall.

It's a shame there wasn't time to pass this bill now. There won't be any excuse next year.

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