Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
Town, Winkler headed to FOIC over release of town attorney billings

By Max Bakke
Journal Inquirer
Published: Friday, November 6, 2009 11:08 PM EST

VERNON — The town will not release its billings to Town Attorney Hal Cummings, saying the records are confidential and their disclosure would violate attorney-client privilege, officials said in an response to a request for the information.

The billings are at the center of a freedom of information complaint filed against the town by Democratic Councilman Michael Winkler, who has asked for all billings for Cummings from January 2007 to August 2009, as well as for Mayor Jason L. McCoy’s payroll records, among other items.

The town has appeared to comply with Winkler’s other requests, but a Nov. 1 memo from Town Administrator John D. Ward says the town won’t release the billings.

“These documents are exempt … as they are confidential per the attorney-client privilege and/or relate to unresolved claims or litigation,” Ward wrote.

When reached for comment, Ward instead referred calls to the mayor.

McCoy, a Republican, says billings are different from legal fees or check stubs, which the town is willing to provide Winkler.

Billings, he said, contain client names, duties performed, and may compromise pending litigation — requiring their confidentiality.

He called Winkler’s request and subsequent complaint “destructive,” arguing it’s distracting and a waste of town employee resources.

“If he just asked for what he wanted, he’d get it,” McCoy said. “He’s looking for something for some other motive.”

Winkler stressed Friday that he would not be satisfied with pay stubs and wants accurate information that describes what the town is being billed for and why.

Winkler said he had submitted a similar request for lawyer billings for a lawsuit regarding another case, and said he’s entitled to the same level of detail he was provided in that instance.

“I’m wondering what changed from the last time they gave me billing information and this time that they don’t want me to see,” he said.

He added, “The mayor is trying to hide town business. I asked for what I wanted. I want to check the billings. … I don’t want to know just how much, I want to know what we’re being billed for and why we needed $60,000 supplemental appropriation for the town attorney.”

The state Freedom of Information Commission is scheduled to take up the complaint Monday at 11:30 a.m., at the commission’s office in Hartford.

Colleen Murphy, the executive director of the commission, says legal fees are commonly public, and that any agency is under a “high burden” to prove an exemption applies.

She declined to discuss Winkler’s complaint, citing its pending status, but said in rare instances a bill for legal services might contain references to litigation or negotiation strategy, and could be exempt.

Those exemptions, however, wouldn’t preclude an agency from fulfilling the request, she said.

“We’ve ordered disclosure of billing records in many instances,” she said. But “the burden of proof is on the agency to establish that any portion of this record that the exemption applies.”

She continued, “The information has to be about pending litigation … not just something the town is worried about that may become pending litigation.”

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