City fights payment of legal fees

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WATERTOWN — The city is still fighting to not pay the legal fees that WWNY-TV’s owner, Gray Media Group, spent in its court battle to have the Richard M. Finn report released to the public.

The city has formally filed an appeal with the state Appellate Division, Fourth Judicial Department, Rochester, arguing that it should not have to pay the legal fees.

After the city refused Freedom of Information Law requests by WWNY-TV, also known as 7 News, and the Watertown Daily Times seeking a copy of the report, the television station took the city to court, and won.

The TV station took the matter to court because it believed the public had the right to know what was in the report that led to Mr. Finn resigning from his city manager position in January 2020.

City Attorney Robert J. Slye said Friday the city has what is called “perfected the appeal” to the appellate division.

“It’s our belief we shouldn’t have to pay anything at all,” Mr. Slye said.

Gray Media Group had been arguing in court that the city should pay $120,928 in legal fees from the law firm of Ballard Spahr.

The city’s appeal only deals with its argument it should not have to pay any of the legal fees.

In a briefing filed with the higher court, Syracuse attorney Jonathan Fellows, who’s representing the city in the appeal, wrote “the city respectfully submits that the lower court erred in determining that Gray Media was entitled to shift its attorneys’ fees to the city.”

After 7 News filed the FOIL request, the city obtained an opinion from an attorney with the state’s Committee on Open Government that the city had “a reasonable basis” not to release the report.

In August 2020, state Supreme Court Judge James P. McClusky ordered the city to release the report into whether Mr. Finn was responsible for creating a hostile work environment, an accusation made by now former city Parks and Recreation Superintendent Erin E. Gardner.

The television station can still file an appeal of its own contending the city should pay the fees.

Jeffrey D. Nelson, WWNY’s news director, said in an email Friday that the television station is still discussing the situation with its attorney about the station’s next step.

“A fee award in a case like this is meant to deter a government from keeping secret what should be public,” Mr. Nelson said. “We believe the city must be held accountable for its actions, to ensure public documents are kept public in the future.”

If 7 News files its appeal, the appellate division could rule the city must pay the $120,928, not the $10,395 that Judge McClusky stipulated in a ruling two weeks ago.

Mr. Fellows’ firm, Bond, Schoeneck & King, is charging the city $6,890.72 to file the appeal. So far, the city has spent $23,984.94 in its defense not to pay the legal fees to the television station.

In lowering the amount from $120,000 to $10,395, Judge McClusky determined the hourly fees and the number of hours that the television station’s attorney charged were excessive.

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