Bruce Krug’s lawsuit against Lewis County over its failure to comply with the state’s Freedom of Information Act has joined the pantheon of successful actions against the county, and it might be time to wonder if the county needs better legal representation, better leadership or both.
In the most recent action, state Supreme Court Judge Hugh A. Gilbert agreed with nearly every point alleged by Mr. Krug, who acted pro se, or on his own behalf, in the Article 78 lawsuit. The term refers to Article 78 of the state’s Civil Practice Law & Rules and it provides relief from improper or arbitrary and capricious acts of government. In this case, Mr. Krug claimed that the county violated the portion of Public Officers Law known as the Freedom of Information Act by failing to provide him with copies of documents that were, by law, matters of public record.
In going up against the legal legerdemain of county Attorney Richard Graham, Mr. Krug argued that Graham, as county records officer, acted improperly in denying his requests for records of the county’s collection of its bed tax, for a copy of a “permit” for a special all-terrain-vehicle event the county was purported to have issued and for the amount of money the county has collected in ATV fees and how much it has spent on ATV trails. He also asked that the county be required to reimburse his fees and costs of taking the action, and that the county be forced to undergo training by the state’s Committee on Open Government staff.
Here’s what he got from the judge: everything but the training class. Judge Gilbert ordered the county to provide all of the documents sought, and the county to reimburse the former legislator for his court costs. It was a pretty thorough whuppin’ of Lewis County and it has to raise questions of just how the county is being run.
Thus far, the county has lost pretty much every action brought against its ATV trails system, at least as far as opening public roads to ATV traffic. Two more are pending, and while the one brought by Rose Petit may falter, since she was representing herself but died after being injured in a fire late last year, the other one has a lot of precedent behind it and against the county’s weak justification of road openings. It says something that most of the plaintiffs aren’t even “lawyering up” to take action against the county.
The Krug case should put the county on notice it better stop playing fast and loose with the Freedom of Information Act. Mr. Graham cavalierly fails to respond to requests — I know this from experience — and County Legislature Chairman Jack T. Bush, the person to whom appeals of FOI rulings must be sent, did not respond to Mr. Krug’s appeal and has not responded to two appeals I have made in the past. That can only make me surmise Mr. Bush doesn’t take too seriously his responsibility to be part of the county’s FOI response team. (Pause for uncontrollable laughter here...)
The whole of the cases present another, perhaps bigger question: if the county keeps losing these lawsuits, where is it getting the advice that puts it in the position where it is getting sued?
Clearly, Mr. Graham failed to grasp the meaning of Public Officers Law when he denied Mr. Krug’s request. As Judge Gilbert noted, Mr. Krug wasn’t seeking the tax information of certain individuals — he was seeking to ascertain whether the county is fulfilling its fiduciary duty to its citizens in administering and collecting a lawful tax.
Similarly, Mr. Krug, in seeking ATV registration data and costs of ATV trails and some “trail” of an outside funding source, was trying to determine if the county is diligently collecting its ATV registration fees, since it has a third party involved in the process, and what that money is going toward.
Lewis County, you will recall, does not have all that great a track record with respect to handling money. Remember the half-million it gave to Paul Lyndaker for Adirondack Speedway, only to be told “get that back!” by the state? Come to think of it, where was the county’s legal counsel when that debacle was happening?
The county is going to have to pay Bruce Krug a few hundred dollars for its willful violation of the Freedom of Information Act. You can’t help but wonder, though, when the Legislature is going to get some bad legal advice that causes it to make a really bad decision — one that will cost thousands, or millions, of dollars when it is challenged and loses in court. When that happens, they won’t be able to point to Mr. Krug and call him a “troublemaker” or some of the less polite names he’s been called; they can look in the mirror to see who to blame for that one.