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Businessman wins legal fees in fight over public records

By Susan Voyles

Reno Gazette-Journal

December 14th, 2000

 Reindeer Lodge owner Gary Schmidt has won a case in Washoe District Court, requiring the county to pay his legal bills after he filed a lawsuit to obtain public records.

In the case decided last week by Judge Connie Steinheimer, Schmidt had sought public records for months from the county water resource department.

Those records were related to a lawsuit he filed in December 1999 over a county zoning decision made two months earlier involving property near his lodge on Mount Rose Highway.

The judge agreed certain documents were not turned over to Schmidt until right before or after he filed the lawsuit to get them in February.

Schmidt sees the decision as a victory for citizens and incentive for more open government. When citizens must resort to filing lawsuits and are then given the public records they sought, he said the county will be paying the legal bills. It doesn’t matter if the case is eventually dropped.

But Assistant District Attorney Greg Shannon doesn’t read it that way. He said many of the records were provided before the lawsuit was filed. And he said Schmidt won legal fees only after the judge decided the case.

According to Steinheimer, when Schmidt obtained documents only after he filed his lawsuit, he won "significant benefits" and became a prevailing party in the lawsuit.

Steinheimer ruled that’s enough to win attorney fees under her interpretation of a Nevada Supreme Court decision. She said the county "did not get serious about supplying certain documents until after this application (for a court order) was either imminent or actually filed."

After Schmidt had obtained all the documents sought, he and his attorney Gary Parkele said they wanted to settle the case if the county paid $6,000 in legal bills. But the county refused, saying he wasn’t entitled to legal fees because no court order had been issued.

Then Schmidt proceeded with the case this fall, resulting in court hearings over two days before Steinheimer made her decision. He claims his legal bills have now shot up to $30,000.

The county contested the legal fees when the amount claimed hit $15,000, Shannon said. He said no itemized billing has ever been turned over to the county.

The judge will now make the decision on how much the county should be paid.

Schmidt said he’s pleased with the decision and handed all five county commissioners copies of his court order during a board retreat Tuesday.

Washoe County Commissioner Pete Sferrazza later told county manager Katy Singlaub at the board’s regular meeting that he wants a full report in public on the county’s policies in providing public records.

And if no other avenue is available to Schmidt, Sferrazza said he’d put an item on the agenda and ask the county commission to suspend its rules and reconsider his zoning case.

He said that’s because Schmidt wasn’t given records he had sought before the county heard the zoning issue.

On Sept. 28, 1999, the county commission essentially barred Schmidt from building a small motel on property across the street from his Reindeer Lodge. The only way he can open that motel is if he builds a sewer line up the Mt. Rose Highway within four years. If that line isn’t built, he’ll lose the commericial zoning. Schmidt said he can’t afford the $400,000 cost.

Schmidt had wanted to operate a temporary septic tank system until the sewer line approaches his property and he could pay his share of the costs. Mount Rose Ski Resort must extend the line if it follows through on plans to expand its ski lodge.

Terri Svetich, a Water Resources Department engineer, told the board the motel project was not eligible to be on septic. Under county policy, she said the motel would exceed the maximum limit of having 25 plumbing fixture units on a septic system.

Two weeks before the county commission heard that case, Schmidt’s lawyer wrote a letter to Svetich demanding any and all documents pertaining to that policy.

Pakele and Schmidt also had demanded those documents in July and August 1999 before the planning commission heard the issue. But the judge ruled certain documents weren’t provided until right before or after he filed his lawsuit in February.

 © 2000 Reno Gazette-Journal http://www.rgj.com/news2/stories/news/976854785.html

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