Ohio Court of Claims Judge Patrick McGrath has ordered Orange Township officials to release the public documents sought by resident Stacey Neff.
“Judgment is rendered in favor of requester Stacy Neff,” McGrath’s judgment states. “In accordance with the special master’s recommendation, the court orders respondent (Orange Township) to permit Neff to inspect or receive copies of the records submitted under seal to the court relative to Neff’s Request No.3.”
Neff filed her complaint with the court Oct. 10, 2017, when her request for documents went unfulfilled. She submitted six items as a single request to the township. Item No.3 relates to “any communications from or to (Trustee Lisa) Knapp related to a forensic audit, including communications sent to the state auditor or a private auditing firm.”
“To date, Orange Township has been invoiced $9,862 to defend the Court of Claim lawsuit filed by Ms. Neff,” said Lee Bodnar, township administrator.
“I spent $25 to file, and I sent them about $45 in costs to reimburse per the court order,” said Neff about the amount she has spent on the case.
According to the judgment, “The court determines Neff is entitled to recover from the respondent (Orange Township) the amount of the filing fee of twenty-five dollars and any other costs associated with the action incurred by Neff,” states the judgment. “Court costs are assessed against respondent.”
Also stated in the judgment, “Neff is not entitled to recover attorney fees.”
Neff said she didn’t use the services of an attorney. Instead, she filed all the paperwork herself.
“I’m glad that the court found in my favor but disappointed that it took eight months to get this resolved,” Neff said. “It was a long and frustrating process. I don’t understand why the township had to foot the bill for this case. Knapp’s insistence on using her private email server nullifies any responsibility the township had in defending her as a trustee.”
Court documents indicate that Fiscal Officer Joel Spitzer, who was handling the township’s public document request at the time, was able to supply many of the items requested by Neff except those not under his control. The documents were supposed to be emails written from Knapp’s personal email account and under her control.
“I still have not received the emails Knapp sent to the auditor claiming fraud in the township,” Neff said.
According to the special master’s recommendation in the case, Jeffery Clark, Knapp is named in the case, but Clark points out in his recommendation that, “… Neff’s request was directed to (Fiscal Officer Joel) Spitzer, who is by statute the person responsible for the administrative records of the township. … The duty to produce responsive records in compliance with (Ohio Revised Code) may thus fall on the township, Spitzer, and/or Knapp, depending on the facts and circumstances of each request.”
“The special Master said that Spitzer violated Ohio’s public records law and I agree that he did,” Knapp said in a text message to The Gazette. “Spitzer, as records custodian, did not thoroughly vet the overly broad request as required and simply passed it on.”
Clark’s recommendation to the court states, “When statutes impose a duty on a particular official to oversee records, that official is the ‘person responsible’ under the (Ohio Revised Code). Spitzer did not provide Neff with copies of requested records in his keeping, or reject the request as ambiguous or overly broad, or assert any exception, or respond that the records did not exist.”
Trustees approved a resolution March 5 that transferred the responsibility of custodianship of public records from the fiscal officer to the township administrator.
Knapp states in her text that Neff was a campaign supporter in Spitzer’s May run for the Ohio Senate and a good friend of Trustee Debbie Taranto, insisting that Neff filed the request with purely malicious intent and for frivolous reasons during the 2017 fall election season.
“This pattern of harassment and vengeance ultimately has proven to be a huge waste of taxpayer money via hundreds of hours of staff time and thousands in legal fees,” she said. “Yet Ms. Neff and other Spitzer and Taranto supporters continue their pattern of harassment by frivolous records requests, over 70 of them in the past 6 weeks. When will it end? It’s time to move on and get some work done. We had to pay an attorney because the county prosecutor has recused themselves from that due to conflict of interest.”
Trustees decided May 21 to hire attorney Brian Zets to scrutinize public document requests at a rate of $210 per hour, instead of using the free services provided by the Delaware County Prosecutor’s Office.
Knapp said she wasn’t sure how much the township had spent on the case but said, “It’s pretty clear that these people are hoping to run up the legal bills as well.”
“It will be a saving in the long run because it will finally be done right after years of being done incorrectly,” she said.
According to the Ohio Court of Claims’ website, “On Sept. 28, 2016, the new public records law became effective providing the public a faster and a much more affordable solution of settling public records disputes with government entities. … Prior to this law taking effect, the only recourse for a person denied a public records request was to sue the government entity for a mandamus action in court. This expansion of jurisdiction was a welcome recognition of the Court’s continued improvement in hearing cases both timely and with finality.”
Contact D. Anthony Botkin at 740-413-0902. Follow him on Twitter @dabotkin.