- Associated Press - Friday, January 31, 2014

CLINTON, Iowa (AP) - Current and former members of the Clinton City Council won’t individually pay legal fees and a fine expected to total more than $40,000 in connection to an open records lawsuit, according to a district court judge.

The bill will instead fall to the city, District Court Judge Nancy Tabor ruled on Thursday, the Clinton Herald reported (http://bit.ly/1be6LEZ ).

Another judge ruled in November that the city violated the state’s public records law when it refused to release minutes and recordings of closed meetings related to a $4.5 million whistle-blower settlement. Citizens For Open Government, a citizens’ group, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa filed the lawsuit.

The 2009 and 2010 meetings involved discussion on a former employee’s lawsuit claiming that the city improperly overbilled Medicare and Medicaid for ambulance services. The case resulted in a 2010 settlement in which the city agreed to pay $4.5 million over a 10-year period to the federal government and the employee.

Following the November ruling over the open records lawsuit, it was unclear who would pay legal fees and a subsequent fine.

The city attorney, Cynthia Sueppel, argued in a motion that the burden of the costs should be solely on Clinton because council members weren’t individually named in the open records lawsuit.

“The fees of over $40,000 can’t be assessed against persons who are not part of this court,” Sueppel said. “The petitioners chose to serve two persons - the city clerk and the city of Clinton.”

Tabor, the district court judge, agreed. The Clinton city clerk and “records custodian,” Pat Van Loo, also will not be required to pay individually.

Citizens For Open Government said the judge’s decision doesn’t hold the elected officials accountable for the violation.

“The purpose of (the case) is to make sure those individuals are the ones who have to bear the burden of those mistakes as opposed to the citizens,” said Blake Parker, the group’s attorney.

Parker said the fees will largely end up coming from Clinton taxpayer dollars.

“They’re able to sneak away with no accountability, no liability, even after being found in violation,” said Citizens For Open Government member Marty Nitschke.

Sueppel said she was pleased with the judge’s ruling. She and Mayor Mark Vulich made no further comments to the newspaper.

Tabor has 60 days to give a final ruling on the case, which includes another motion by Sueppel over final legal expenses.

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