Star-Exponent: The right to know might cost you dearly
OUR VIEW: The right to know might cost you dearly
Published: May 1, 2009
Last year, Leigh Purdum of Brightwood won a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against her former employer, Madison County Sheriff Erik Weaver. Her suit was over Weaver’s failure to provide a list of members on his citizens advisory board, which he claimed she sought for political purposes.
While the board itself is not a public entity, any records of it maintained by the sheriff’s office are public documents, according to a General District Court ruling in which Weaver was ordered to turn over the names and pay a $250 fine.
Weaver provided the information, but appealed the fine on the grounds that he did not "willfully and knowingly" violate the law, as he was following his lawyer’s advice. Judge Jay Swett, presiding over Madison County Circuit Court, recently ruled in Weaver’s favor.
The end result: Weaver’s fine was overturned and Purdum has some pretty sizeable legal bills, solely because the sheriff appealed. She represented herself in the first suit but naturally hired an attorney for the appeal.
Leaving out the feud between Purdum and Weaver -- which extends to other issues -- what we have is a citizen incurring huge legal bills to enforce a right that is supposed to be guaranteed by law. The system, as it is now, discourages citizens from defending their right to public information.
This case also highlights a lack of FOIA knowledge that is not uncommon among government officials. Every year, the Associated Press does an audit by seeking information from selected governments. And every year, the AP reports on a few officials who refused to provide information.
For his part, we can understand Weaver wanting to clear his name and save $250, especially in this economy. However, it should be noted that Madison County taxpayers paid for his appeal.
Weaver appealed on principle last year, and we opposed it on principle. We still think it’s a shame that taxpayer money funded an elected official’s personal litigation, and it’s even more of a tragedy that Purdum is left to foot a big bill.
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