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Citizens group wins fees due to "intentional and flagrant" violations

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Citizens group wins fees due to "intentional and flagrant" violations01/15/96 NEW YORK--A citizens group attacking the secret political restructuring of…

Citizens group wins fees due to “intentional and flagrant” violations

01/15/96

NEW YORK–A citizens group attacking the secret political restructuring of Monticello Village by the local township won its fight in early December to force the village to pick up its legal tab.

The Court of Appeals, New York’s highest court, ruled that the award to the group by a trial judge in Monticello accorded with the Open Meeting Law’s provision for court costs and attorney’s fees in cases of “intentional and flagrant” violations. It reversed an appellate court finding that the award was an abuse of judicial discretion.

In February 1993 Monticello’s Board of Trustees in closed session agreed to restructure the local government, creating new titles and authorities to be redistributed among the current Board members. Two weeks later the Board voted publicly on the restructuring in accordance with the secret agreement.

The citizen’s group challenged the restructuring as a violation of New York’s open meetings law and sought costs and attorney’s fees from the Township.

The trial court in Monticello agreed with the group and awarded it fees. The Appellate Division reversed that award, holding that an award of attorney’s fees under the statute required an “indication in the record that the defendant repeatedly has acted in violation of the Open Meetings Law or that its actions were undertaken in bad faith,” that the information withheld from the public be of “clearly significant interest” and that there be no “reasonable basis” for withholding it.

The Court of Appeals reversed the Appellate Division, noting that the Appellate Division had engrafted additional requirements for an award of attorney’s fees onto the Open Meetings Law, and that neither the “clearly significant interest” nor the “reasonable basis” tests pronounced by the lower court were prerequisites under the statute. (In the matter of Victor W. Gordon v. Village of Monticello; Counsel: Loran Shlevin, Monticello)