Ada case grows costly for taxpayers

From the Idaho Statesman

Legal fees for commissioners who held closed meeting may hit $30,000

By Brad Hern
Idaho Statesman

Ada County taxpayers’ cost to defend their three county commissioners from each paying $150 fines could exceed $30,000 and might climb even higher.

Last month, Senior Judge William H. Woodland ruled the commissioners — Rick Yzaguirre, Judy Peavey-Derr and Fred Tilman — broke the state’s open meetings law when they held a closed-door meeting with Boise City Councilman Vern Bisterfeldt on June 15.

The commissioners have said they disagree with the decision and plan to appeal to the Idaho Supreme Court.

In court papers filed April 19, Deputy Attorney General William von Tagen asked Woodland to award the state attorney fees of $12,829.
The commissioners’ legal fees already were up to $17,781, so the additional fees from the state would take the taxpayers’ total tab to $30,610.

The commissioners’ attorney, Patrick Furey, has agreed to handle the Supreme Court appeal at no additional cost, but if the county loses on appeal, the AG’s office is expected to ask for more legal fees to cover the cost of fighting the appeal.

“Despite this understanding (that the maximum penalty for each commissioner was $150), (the commissioners) chose to undertake an aggressive defensive posture by filing not just an answer, but also a counterclaim and a 44-page response to the state’s motion for judgment, which ultimately failed,” von Tagen wrote. “While failing to achieve their goal, (the commissioners’) aggressive posture succeeded in driving up attorneys fees for the state. Now, (the commissioners) have informed this court and the state that they intend to drive the costs and fees for the state even further by planning to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.”

The case stems from the June 15 meeting when commissioners met with Bisterfeldt behind closed doors. Records of the meeting indicate they discussed relations between the city and county, and the possibility of lawsuits over large planned communities.

State law allows government bodies to meet in executive sessions on rare occasions to consider personnel matters, labor negotiations, lawsuits and other sensitive issues.

The commissioners closed their meeting with Bisterfeldt because, they said, the possibility of a lawsuit existed.

But no lawyer was in the room to give advice, as is required by state law.

Under Idaho law, the commissioners would pay the $150 fines out of their own pockets, but their legal defense fees are covered by taxpayers because the commissioners were acting in their official capacity.

That’s a problem, said Tony Jones, a county resident who filed the initial complaint with prosecutors regarding the open meeting violation.

“I honestly believe that this should be out of the commissioners’ own private pocket,” he said. “The fine would have been.”

Woodland might not award attorney fees in the case.

State statute and case law say such fees should be reserved for frivolous or unreasonable lawsuits.

Furey responded to von Tagen’s motion Wednesday, saying the case had merit, and the request for attorney fees should be denied.
In a written statement, the commissioners said they are appealing Woodland’s decision because they want clarification of the law, which affects all elected governing bodies in Idaho.

The commissioners say it is unclear whether an attorney must be present in executive sessions that are called to discuss potential or probable litigation.

From the Idaho Statesman

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