WATERTOWN, N.Y. (WWNY) - The company which owns WWNY TV filed legal papers Tuesday seeking $120,000 for their lawyers’ work in bringing the so-called ‘Finn Report’ to light.
The $120,928.20 sought by Gray Media Group is for nearly 250 hours of legal work, as their lawyers battled to make public a report about the conduct of former Watertown city manager Rick Finn.
The city fought WWNY every step of the way, denying an informal request for the report, denying a Freedom of Information Law request for the report, denying an appeal of that denial and finally, opposing WWNY’s lawsuit in state Supreme Court.
“Litigating the public’s right to know what its government is up to can be expensive, and unfortunately that is especially true in a case like this, where the city has tried every argument they can possibly think of to avoid releasing this report,” said Joseph Slaughter from the Ballard Spahr law firm, which represented WWNY.
In August, state Supreme Court Justice James McClusky ordered the report released. In October, the judge rejected the city’s claim that it had acted properly and should not have to pay WWNY’s lawyer fees.
Watertown mayor Jeff Smith said Tuesday that the $120,000 “seems extremely excessive and kind of gouging the taxpayers of the city of Watertown.”
Smith said the city has incurred about $14,000 in lawyer fees.
“Both attorneys have done similar work, they’ve been in front of the same judge,” Smith said. “I can’t explain the difference but it’s a big bill for channel 7. "
In their legal papers filed Tuesday, WWNY’s lawyers pointed out that forcing government to pay legal fees is one of the few ways a news organization has of enforcing the public’s right to know and combating a “‘sue us’ attitude.”
Slaughter said in an interview that a ‘sue us’ attitude means “Government has control over the information, and essentially they have the ability to say, ‘Well, we’re not going to give it to you, and your only recourse is to sue us.’”
Slaughter called suing a “very expensive, time consuming, and uncertain proposition.”
Having to pay legal fees, Slaughter noted, tells government “you should play fair when it comes to the Freedom of Information law.”
“The fact that you don’t want to isn’t good enough.”
What is at issue now before Judge McClusky is how much the city should have to pay.
In their legal papers, WWNY’s lawyers note the city “at every turn,” “asserted new legal theories as to why they were not obligated to release the Report, forcing (WWNY’s lawyers) to spend more time on researching and drafting its responses to these novel arguments.”
In addition, WWNY’s lawyers argue that by taking the case to court and getting a decision from Judge McClusky, WWNY has played a role in “clarifying and furthering the law” when it comes to whether records of allegations against public employees are subject to Freedom of Information laws.
Smith, the mayor, said the city should not have to pay any legal fees and the city plans to appeal.
He said the city based its decision to not release the report on Finn on an “advisory opinion” from the state’s Committee on Open Government.
“It’s that committee’s job to say what should be made public and what shouldn’t be made public. And we followed that opinion,” Smith said.
“Otherwise, if people are gonna get sued over following the opinions of the state’s Committee on Open Government, what’s the sense of having them?”
Judge McClusky, in his decision, said the city did not give the Committee on Open Government all the information it should have disclosed before the Committee issued its opinion.
Read the legal filing below: