By Sean Whaley,Nevada News Bureau: A Fallon attorney who has won two public records cases against Storey County is asking the Nevada Supreme Court to require the local government to pay his requested fees and costs for bringing the actions.
Attorney Martin Crowley said two different district judges who ruled in his favor in the public records cases awarded only $2,500 each in fees and costs, far less than requested for the time spent on the matters.
In the first of the cases dating to 2009 against the Storey County Clerk, Crowley said his fees exceeded $40,000 and he asked for $25,000. First Judicial District Judge James Wilson called the fee request “excessive and unreasonable.”
The request in the second case against the Storey County Assessor’s Office was for just under $9,000.
If Crowley gets a favorable ruling from the Supreme Court, the actions by Storey County officials to fight the public records requests could end up costing local taxpayers a substantial sum.
Crowley said the failure to award appropriate fees and costs would be a blow to the public’s efforts to obtain public records. Requiring a local government or agency to pay reasonable court costs is an incentive to make public documents available as required by state law, he said.
“If they don’t have to pay there is no cost to them to refuse documents when they are properly requested,” Crowley said. “Both of these entities could have settled out for dirt cheap if they would have just turned over the documents and paid the fees.”
Crowley said the first case could have been settled for less than $4,000. Because the county continued to challenge the matter, however, and the court ordered additional hearings, the costs rose substantially.
In the first case, Crowley said Storey County not only failed to provide the records sought by Druscilla Thyssen and Joe Panicaro until ordered to do so by the court, but it spent $18,000 to hire private legal counsel to fight the request.
Thyssen had sought information provided by other Storey County property owners who were successful in lowering their tax bills after failing to get her own tax bill reduced. Thyssen and Panicaro tried for six months to get the records without success, Crowley said.
Thyssen ultimately won a reduction in an appeal to the state tax board.
The Storey County District Attorney’s office defended the second case in a records request by Panicaro, which initially involved fees of only about $1,100.
The government entities balked at paying the modest fees, and in so doing forced the matters into the courts and the costs to go up, Crowley said.
Storey County Deputy District Attorney Laura Grant said there were legitimate issues in the county recorder case, including whether a public records request had actually been submitted. She also said there was some confusion because of a change to the public records law by the 2007 Legislature.
Grant said her understanding is that the Supreme Court has limited options in dealing with the fees. The court could remand the matter back to the district judge to reconsider the fee request, she said.
The private attorney representing the county in the other case could not be reached for comment.
Nevada’s public records law presumes all information is public unless there is a specific statute exempting the information from release for privacy or other valid reasons. The law requires requests to be honored within five working days. If a request is rejected the public agency must cite the Nevada statute making the records confidential. Those making requests can be charged for the cost of copies.
It also requires payment of costs and reasonable attorneys fees to the prevailing side in a legal action.
Barry Smith, executive director of the Nevada Press Association, said if a public records request is denied the only recourse is to take the matter to court which is a financial barrier for most people.
Legitimate fees and costs associated with such cases have to be recognized by the courts, he said.
“What public officials need to realize is that these are public records,” Smith said. “They aren’t the government’s records. People don’t realize governments are using their tax dollars to fight against their own interests.”
Crowley said there wouldn’t even be a legal case if officials had followed the state law on public records requests and made the requested information available to the two county residents.
Crowley is attempting to consolidate the two cases before the Supreme Court because they involve similar issues. He has alerted Nevada media entities of the cases and is asking for support in the form of “friend of the court” briefs where groups and individuals not actually involved in a case can still weigh in on the legal issues.
Crowley said there are other public records cases he could pursue, but he can’t afford to take them until the fee issue has been resolved.
Attorney Martin Crowley says his client attempted for six months to get public records without success:
Crowley says requiring government entities to pay court fees and costs ensures they will comply with the public records law:
Crowley says he will emphasize to the Nevada Supreme Court the cases could have been resolved at a much lower cost: