York Co. refuses museum lawsuit records request

adouglas@heraldonline.comSeptember 17, 2013 

York County officials are refusing to release the County Council’s final offer to the Culture and Heritage Foundation that, if accepted, would have avoided a lawsuit council members say could cost up to $250,000.

In a letter to The Herald, county attorney Michael Kendree denied the newspaper’s request for the document because, he said, it relates to “proposed contractual arrangements.”

The request was denied even though the county gave the document to the foundation, the entity ultimately sued by County Council.

On Monday night, the County Council voted unanimously to spend an additional $200,000 in litigation fees this fiscal year. The money will pay the costs associated with three lawsuits involving the county, including the one filed against the Cultural and Heritage Foundation.

Council members approved the expenditure without seeing a breakdown of how the money would be spent.

Chairman Britt Blackwell said he trusts Kendree’s judgment. He said he didn’t expect to see specific figures on the legal costs for the museum suit this early in the proceedings.

The Herald last week asked county officials to release the amount spent so far on the lawsuit. Kendree told The Herald Monday morning he hopes to release the information by Wednesday.

York County’s suit claims that the foundation violated its own bylaws last year by formally changing its mission to support organizations other than York County’s museums and used donations intended for the museums to support those other groups.

The county also alleges that foundation leaders have been “uncooperative” and have refused to release financial information related to donated money and land.

This summer, York County hired Columbia law firm Nexsen Pruet to represent it in its lawsuit against the foundation.

Officials also have lamented that, because of the lawsuit’s cost, the county’s museums are losing donation dollars.

The Herald filed a Freedom of Information Act request on Aug. 23, asking York County to release some documents related to failed settlement talks that led to the suit.

In the request, The Herald asked York County to provide the foundation’s proposal of settlement terms, sent to county officials on June 21, 2013.

The request also asked the county to provide its response to the foundation’s settlement proposal, sent five days later to foundation officials.

The Herald also is seeking emails – sent by county employees or County Council members – related to the dispute over how the foundation uses gifts originally intended for the county’s museums.

Kendree says there are no emails that have to be released under the state’s Freedom of Information Act and that settlement documents are exempt from disclosure because they relate to “proposed contractual agreements.”

He cited attorney-client privilege over all the records, saying that state law provides the exemption.

The foundation has filed a “conditional answer” to the county’s law suit, denying the majority of allegations made against his client.

On the issue of the unsuccessful settlement proposals sent back and forth between his client and the county in June, attorney Jim Sheedy has said the foundation does not view the documents as confidential.

The documents – which each side viewed and intended in June to use as a means to settle out of court – would not be admissible as evidence under state judicial department rules, he has told The Herald.

Jie Jenny Zou contributed.

Anna Douglas •  803-329-4068

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