Grafton ordered to pay fees in public records case

Appeals court rules village is liable for legal expenses of trustee in decision called a victory for open government
By 
BILL SCHANEN IV
Ozaukee Press staff

In a decision that is being called a victory for open government, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals last week ruled that the Village of Grafton must pay at least some of the legal costs of a village trustee who sued officials in 2019 to obtain public records.

“This is an important, precedent-setting case that firmly establishes that citizens who have to sue to get public records are entitled to recovery of their legal fees,” Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said.

Susan Meinecke, who served as a Grafton trustee from 2007 to 2020, requested scores of village records during her last term in office. The village released many of those records but not all of them, and in February 2019 Meinecke sued Grafton Village Administrator Jesse Thyes and Fire Chief William Rice.

In her lawsuit, Meinecke alleged “public records exist that will prove that members of the Village Board, Thyes and Rice improperly conspired against her (2018) election campaign and made false statements about her.”

Ozaukee County Circuit Judge Sandy Williams ruled that the village properly withheld some protected records but ordered it to release others it had withheld.

At issue in the appeal was a January 2020 decision by Williams to reject Meinecke’s request for reimbursement of $15,789 in legal fees and $534 in costs. Williams also ruled that Meinecke was not entitled to $100 in damages — the minimum required by law.

Williams concluded that Meinecke did not prevail in “whole or substantial part,” as required by law, and in explaining her decision said the records did not prove Meinecke’s conspiracy theory, village officials had not acted with “wanton disregard” for the public records law and Meinecke did not succeed in gaining access to all the records she sought, according to the Court of Appeals ruling.

The ruling also notes that Williams said Meinecke’s suit resulted in “a lot of people’s time and energy (being) wasted.” Williams, in fact, praised village officials, saying, “I think the respondents (Thyes and Rice) have engaged in an incredibly good-faith effort in complying with the open records law.”

The Court of Appeals, however, ruled that plaintiffs who successfully sue to gain access to improperly withheld public records have substantially prevailed under the law and are entitled to have their legal fees paid by defendants.

“We conclude that Meinecke prevailed in substantial part in her mandamus action when she successfully accessed improperly withheld public records as a result of a court order,” Chief Judge Lisa Neubauer wrote in the court’s opinion.

The extent to which plaintiffs prevail is an issue in determining the amount of legal fees owed to them, the court stated in a ruling that remands the Meinecke case to circuit court so that determination can be made. 

“The ruling is a victory for government transparency advocates across Wisconsin,” Tom Kamenick, president of the Port Washington-based Wisconsin Transparency Project who represented Meinecke on appeal, said. “Having this binding precedent will hopefully prevent circuit courts from making similar mistakes in the future and should encourage citizens to hold public officials accountable to the law.”

Kamenick called Williams’ rationale for rejecting Meinecke’s legal fee request “disturbing,” saying factors such as the motivations of those seeking public records or whether those records ultimately further the aims of requesters are irrelevant.

“That’s not the issue,” he said. “We don’t know what governments have in their records until we see them.”

Kamenick praised the Court of Appeals ruling for lending clarity to the open records law.

“We have very solid open records laws, but they have been woefully enforced because people don’t want to incur the cost of fighting for them,” he said. “It’s very important to have a clean set of rules, and in that regard the Court of Appeals did an excellent job.”

Thyes declined to comment this week, saying, “I will be reviewing the decision with our Village Board to determine what (if any) the next steps may be.”

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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