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Public Records Beef Goes to Court

Almost $3 million to hand over public records seems like a lot of money to former Lane County commissioner Rob Handy and his attorney Marianne Dugan. Handy is suing the county, alleging that it didn’t turn over documents related to a meeting and letter in which he was accused of ethics violations. Coos County Circuit Court Judge Richard Barron heard arguments and testimony Jan. 30 and Feb. 1 at the Lane County Circuit Court. 

The state Department of Justice decided against filing criminal charges against Handy and the state Government Ethics Commission will now investigate. Handy has said he is confident in the commission’s outcome.

Handy and District Attorney (and former county counsel) Alex Gardner testified Jan. 30 and Public Records and Strategic Operations Officer Judy Williams and County Administrator Liane Richardson took the stand Feb. 1. Though current County Counsel Stephen Dingle and Dugan were both involved in the email exchanges introduced to the court as exhibits, neither testified, instead serving as attorneys in the case and cross-examining those on the stand.

Dugan introduced into the record a number of emails to the county making public records requests that the attorney argued showed different responses by the county to similar requests. Some requests were dealt with immediately and for no charge, such as a request for Pete Sorenson’s payments and receipts into an account related to the debt in Ellie Dumdi case, while other requests were apparently not dealt with for several days and the requesters were charged fees for the information. Both EW and the R-G figured heavily in the examples. 

Some of the requests cited appeared indicative of in-fighting at the county, such as Commissioner Jay Bozievich’s request for fellow commissioner Pete Sorenson’s communications with others, including an EW reporter. 

When Richardson took the stand she denied any “bad blood” towards Handy, and also said she did not instigate a harassment complaint against Handy and Sorenson that was found to be unsubstantiated. Records indicate Richardson emailed Human Resources Director Madilyn Zike and complained that Handy and Sorenson were retaliating against her. The county hired an attorney for her in the issue and spent thousands on the attorney and on the investigation. 

Richardson’s answers to most of Dugan’s questions fell along the lines of “I don’t remember,” “I have a lot of other things to do,” (other than decide on fee waivers for public records requests) and “Not that I recall.” Richardson said she has never granted a fee waiver for a public records request, but could not remember the wording of the Oregon laws that determine when a public record is in the public interest and should have its fees waived, saying she looks it up each time. 

On Jan. 30 another Coos County judge ruled that the International Port of Coos Bay “abused its discretion” by trying to discourage the Sierra Club from getting public records involving a proposed coal export terminal by charging $20,000 in fees and ordered the records be released to the group for free. The judge wrote that the request was in the public interest. Eugene attorney Dave Bahr was one of the Sierra Club’s lawyers in the case.

Judge Barron has given Dugan and Dingle a week to submit written summaries, but it is unclear how soon after that a ruling will be made.