Clearcreek Twp. in Warren County has been ordered to pay almost $200,000 in attorney fees to lawyers who represented a resident in an open-meetings lawsuit.
In 2011, the lawyers sued the township, claiming the trustees regularly met from 2009 to 2011 before public meetings to work out their positions on issues before beginning open sessions.
Trustee Ed Wade said it was the largest judgment he had seen in 36 years in office in the township, home to about 16,000 people just south of the Montgomery County line and outside Springboro.
A lawyer with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press said the award was significant for several reasons.
“That is a large award for this kind of litigation,” said Emily Grannis, a lawyer with the group involved in open meetings and open records cases around the country. “It certainly is encouraging. It makes it worthwhile for lawyers to take this kind of work.”
Judge James Flannery last week ordered the township to pay $183,807 in fees and $12,748 in costs to lawyers Chris Finney and Curt Hartman. The lawsuit said the trustees held illegal pre-meetings before regularly scheduled board meetings.
“Unfortunately, that’s a very common practice,” Grannis said. “This ensures that the public gets to actually see its government at work.”
After ruling in the township's favor at earlier stages, Flannery ultimately found for resident Jack Chrisman.
“The court finds without dispute that the township trustees made a regular practice of two or all three trustees meeting in the office of the township administrator, Dennis Pickett, approximately 30 minutes prior to the schedule public meeting,” Flannery said in his March 11 decision.
The township also paid about $20,643 for its legal defense, as well as exhausting $50,000 in coverage through insurance, according to Fiscal Officer Linda Oda.
The attorney fees would be paid from township funds, officials said.
“Our coverages are used up. The payment would be from public funds out of the general fund,” Township Administrator Dennis Pickett said Monday.
Flannery’s award cut about $45,000 from the amount sought by Finney and Hartman, who could not be reached about the award or whether they planned to appeal.
Chrisman, who at one point was ordered to pay some of the township’s legal fees, is to receive $500 per violation under Ohio Sunshine Law.
“I really didn’t expect anything. We just wanted them to stop having the meetings,” said Chrisman.
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