Chief Judge Josh Butcher ruled Tuesday in a lawsuit between a Logan County employee and the Logan County Economic Development Authority over disclosure of public documents.
AM Stone | WVOW News
LOGAN Circuit Court ruled Tuesday the Logan County Economic Development Authority must hand over public documents.
Chief Judge Josh Butcher gave two weeks to the county development authority to turn over documents requested by a county employee through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Christopher Trent, a grant facilitator for Logan County, filed the lawsuit in late September last year after a FOIA request was not adequately answered.
Mr. Trent requested bank statements, canceled checks, agendas and minutes of past Authority meetings. Moreover, Trent requested a list of properties owned by the authority as well as rent paid to the authority.
Trent says he never received a response to his first request in August last year, so he sent a second request. Rocky Adkins, Executive Director of the Logan County Economic Development Authority, responded that the request from Trent was “overly broad.” Mr. Adkins requested specificity of documents sought.
“I basically requested the same documents,” , “and I asked what questions they had or what do I need to specify," Trent told WVOW News in February. "I never received any response from there. Following the law under state code, I filed a lawsuit in circuit court on September 21 of last year.”
Trent said the Logan County Development Authority never responded to the lawsuit or to the court. Trent filed for default judgment on October 27.
The first judge recused in the case, and without objection from either party, Judge Butcher heard the case Tuesday, April eighteenth, 210 days after the initial filing of the suit and 173 days since Mr. Trent filed for default judgment.
Judge Butcher disclosed a ex parte contact concerning the FOIA proceedings in reference to a separate criminal case. The judge said the contact came before him unsolicited but in a necessary way. Judge would not elaborate on what the communication was or what criminal charges may be pending. Neither side objected to the judge hearing Tuesday's civil matter.
According to the penalty section of state code on public records, a custodian is guilty of a misdemeanor for denying any person the right to inspect the public record of a public body. If convicted, sentencing includes up to a $1,000 fine, twenty days in jail or both.
Chris Trent represented himself and The Logan County Economic Development Authority was represented by Logan County Prosecuting Attorney David Wandling.
"So they’re left here at the last minute, scrambling and asking me to appear five minutes before this hearing was set to start.” - Prosecuting Attorney David Wandling
Prosecutor Wandling was drafted into action at the last minute. According to state code, prosecuting attorneys represent certain public entities like the board of education or county commission. The Logan County Development Authority is a public entity of the county commission. Wandling told the court he was only made aware of the case by the Logan County Economic Development Director Rocky Adkins just before the hearing at eleven o’clock.
“Because they didn’t hire their own counsel sooner,” Wandling told the court. “They haven’t filed a response. They likely were not given legal advice on how to respond to the original FOIA. So they’re left here at the last minute, scrambling and asking me to appear five minutes before this hearing was set to start.”
Wandling said the authority chose to not seek counsel, likely to their own detriment, and asked the court for a two-week continuance since he was unfamiliar with the case. Moreover, Wandling said his client can redact personal or privileged information from the documents that are not public in the two weeks.
Chris Trent objected to a continuance and said the matter has been delayed enough.
"I don't understand why the government would get any more benefit than a normal citizen," Trent told the court. "As a matter of fact, I would think they should be held to a higher standard since they are the government. They should abide by the laws that were instituted by the government overall."
Judge Butcher granted default judgement to the plaintiff for the documents he requested and court costs. The judge ruled the authority has two weeks (May 2) to produce the documents for Mr. Trent’s inspection.