GREENVILLE, Mich. (WOOD) — A small community newspaper doing its usual job of covering an election suddenly found itself on the receiving end of a lawsuit filed by a county government.
Greenville Daily News publisher Julie Stafford said the lawsuit was a disappointing development in a relationship with county officials she described as friendly.
“Holy smokes, yeah. On Friday, it came kind of late in the day the word that we were going to be sued. It caught everybody by surprise,” Stafford said. “It was confusing because no one had ever heard of something like this.”
Greenville Daily News reporter Elisabeth Waldon is covering the election for sheriff in Montcalm County — a three-man race between a group of current deputies seeking to replace 15-year Sheriff William Barnwell. The paper, with its staff of eight, submitted Freedom of Information Act requests for the personnel records of the three people running for the job.
Ionia County immediately provided records for candidate Charles Noll, who is currently the undersheriff in neighboring Ionia County.
The records for Montcalm County Undersheriff Mike Williams and Deputy Charlie Mahar were another story. The county filed a lawsuit on Friday, seeking an injunction against releasing the personnel records of Williams and Mahar. The county said it believes employment regulations say personnel records older than four years should be exempt from the paper’s request.
Williams, who has been endorsed by the current sheriff, told 24 Hour News 8 he had no problem releasing his records and that it is important for candidates to be transparent. But Mahar, in a statement on Facebook, said he was fighting for the rights of fellow officers as outlined in their contract.
County Administrator Robert Clingenpeel and Sheriff Barnwell feared they could be sued by Mahar if the county released the files.
Barnwell denied trying to hide information in the records:
“No, we’re not,” he said. “We’re just trying to make sure we’re following the right law.”
“It’s really an issue between do we follow FOIA or do we follow (state statute)?” Clingenpeel said. “They seem to be in conflict.”
The newspaper has an attorney provided by the Michigan Press Association, which often defends its members in disputes over access to records. Attorney Joseph Richotte said the county is misreading the state employment statute and the older files are not exempt from a FOIA request.
A number of attorneys and experts on FOIA law including the Michigan Municipal League told 24 Hour News 8 Wednesday this is the first time they have heard of legal action being taken by a municipality against a newspaper employing FOIA.
At a hearing Monday, a judge ruled that the county must decide itself whether to approve the request in accordance with Michigan law. The attorneys for the Michigan Press Association praised the decision, saying the threat of lawsuits for requesting information would have a chilling effect on practice of journalism.
The county said it will decide “soon rather than later” whether it will release the personnel records.
The Greenville Daily News has not decided whether it would appeal if the FOIA is denied. A denial would likely push the process out past next Tuesday’s election.
Stafford said the records received so far have not provided any blockbuster headlines and she did not expect any.
“I’m looking for things that are going to speak to somebody’s character or their conduct or their job performance,” Stafford said. “Quite honestly, if we got the records, we would use our judgement on whether it was newsworthy.”