News wins lawsuit; city set to appeal
After discussing the issue in closed session, the New Richmond City Council voted unanimously at its July 14 meeting to appeal a St. Croix Circuit Court decision in favor of the New Richmond News involving open records.
The council’s approval to continue the legal battle came with the caveat that the League of Wisconsin Municipalities pick up the tab for the appeal. In fact, District 2 Alderperson Scottie Ard introduced an amendment to the motion requiring the League to issue an official letter to the city detailing the arrangement. The city has until mid-August to formally file its appeal.
City taxpayers stand to pay only $5,000 for the initial circuit court damages if the newspaper wins the appeal. The balance would be picked up by the city’s insurance carrier, according to a statement released Tuesday afternoon by Mayor Fred Horne and the New Richmond City Council.
St. Croix County Circuit Court Judge Howard Cameron ruled in March that federal law does not require New Richmond Police Department to redact names, addresses and ages of subjects involved in official reports detailing accidents, burglaries, acts of vandalism and more. Cameron formally signed the judgement on the ruling earlier this month after two additional hearings disputing the newspaper attorney’s fees.
New Richmond Police Chief Mark Samelstad asserted that because information in reports often came from the motor vehicle records database maintained by the Department of Transportation, making those details public could represent a violation of the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act and expose the city to lawsuits from private citizens.
The DPPA is a federal statute governing the privacy and disclosure of personal information gathered by state Departments of Motor Vehicles.
The newspaper’s lawsuit named the city as a defendant because it is responsible for the actions of the police department. The suit asked that the department reverse its policy and pay attorney fees in the case. The newspaper did not seek any damages beyond the $100 nominal award the Open Records law requires to a requester who prevails.
At last count, about 80 law enforcement jurisdictions across Wisconsin had followed New Richmond’s lead in refusing to release accident and incident report details. Meanwhile many others — including Somerset Police, the St. Croix County Sheriff’s Office and River Falls Police — continue to allow public access to reports.
A portion of Horne’s statement on Tuesday cited the wide-ranging implications of the case while explaining why the city is appealing the case.
“The city feels that a ruling by the Wisconsin appellate courts allows for greater clarity related to this issue,” the statement read. “Simply stated, there is no clear direction on what information should or shouldn’t be redacted and an Appeals Court ruling will help guide municipalities throughout the state, as well as the City of New Richmond, on whether or not they need to redact personal information before responding to an open records request.”
The judgment, which Cameron signed earlier this month, makes official that the city owes the newspaper $63,582.51, which includes attorney’s fees, plus the $100 damage award and actual costs such as filing fees, postage, etc.
Since the March 20 decision, two additional hearings were held during which the attorney for the Minneapolis law firm defending the city, disputed the hourly rate News’ attorney Robert Dreps charged while pleading the newspaper’s case.
Cameron ultimately reduced the charges by about $2,500 but didn’t accept attorney Laura Hanson’s argument that while the open records dispute was “important and does have statewide implications, but I would hardly call it novel or difficult.”
“If you’re from the newspaper (industry) in the state, it’s a very important case,” Cameron said.
Meanwhile, New Richmond Police continues to withhold names, addresses, dates of birth and other information from routine accident and police reports pending appeal. Samelstad has told the News that if Cameron’s ruling is overruled on appeal, any DPPA-sourced information released in the meantime would have been illegal.
CITY OF NEW RICHMOND STATEMENT ISSUED JULY 15
Council to Appeal New Richmond News Judgment Last evening, the City Council met in closed session to discuss the court case filed against the city by the New Richmond News related to redaction issues at our police department. The council unanimously approved appealing this case. On July 1, a judgment was signed by St. Croix County Circuit Court Judge Howard Cameron in favor of the New Richmond News and against the city in the amount of $63,682.51, finding that the city’s redacting of information provided to the press, in response to three particular requests, was in violation of the state open records law.
What does redaction mean? In this case, redaction means to remove personal information from records released to the public.
Why is the city redacting records? The federal law, Senne v. Village of Palatine, Ill., prohibits the disclosure of personally identifying information by the police department to the newspaper, under certain circumstances. The New Richmond Police Department redacts personally identifying information from records in order to comply with the Federal Driver Protection Act (DPPA) in conjunction with current Federal 7th Circuit case law. However, based upon the judgment signed by Cameron, the city should not have redacted the personal information. If the city fails to redact, without clarity of an appellate ruling, we may be open to lawsuits. Therefore, an appeal to the Wisconsin Court of Appeals (or the Wisconsin Supreme Court if possible) is necessary.
Why would the city appeal this case? All municipalities within the State of Wisconsin are awaiting direction from a higher court (Wisconsin Court of Appeals or Supreme Court) to determine whether they should continue to redact (per Federal Guidelines and in accordance with the above mentioned Senne case), or if they should follow the state open records law instead. The city feels that a ruling by the Wisconsin appellate courts allows for greater clarity related to this issue. Simply stated, there is no clear direction on what information should or shouldn’t be redacted and an Appeals Court ruling will help guide municipalities throughout the state, as well as the City of New Richmond, on whether or not they need to redact personal information before responding to an open records request.
How much will this cost? The city has a $5,000 deductible for issues like this. Therefore, the maximum amount that the city will pay for attorneys and claims for this case is that deductible. The judgment of $63,682.51 is covered through our insurance policy.
Because this issue has important state-wide implications, and because many other municipalities are waiting on the decision (win or lose) of the Wisconsin Appellate Court, the League of Wisconsin Municipalities Mutual Insurance Trust (LWMMI) will be covering 100 percent of the costs of the appeal. This will include attorney’s fees and damages if the city loses the appeal.
—Respectfully Submitted, Mayor Fred Horne and the New Richmond City Council