NEW ALBANY — Just under two months after a lawsuit was filed against the City of New Albany for failing to respond to public records requests made by three residents, a judge has ruled the city must provide the information and pay plaintiffs' attorneys fees.
On Dec. 18, special judge Vicki Carmichael issued an order for default judgment after the city did not respond to the civil complaint by its extended deadline of Dec. 10. The order states that the city has 10 days from the ruling to provide public documents requested in August by Floyd County residents Irvin Stumler, Stephen Roberts and Heather Rae Peters, or be fined $50 per day.
Additionally, the city must pay $1,642.50 for plaintiffs' attorney fees, $162.10 for filing fees and another $300 to the plaintiffs themselves.
"We would like to see the public records," Stumler, one of the plaintiffs, said. "We're entitled to see them, any citizen has the right to see what has taken place. I think now they definitely have a court order that tells them they need to get us what we need."
New Albany city attorney Shane Gibson told the News and Tribune Monday that the civil suit was nothing more than a political stunt days before the general election in which New Albany Mayor Jeff Gahan was up for re-election. Gahan was re-elected to a third term.
“The city was sued by former political opponents and non-city residents' days before the November mayoral election to try and influence the outcome," Gibson said in an emailed statement. "We are pleased those efforts failed. While these actions were politically motivated, the City of New Albany intends to comply with any court order regarding the matter.”
According to the civil complaint filed Nov. 1 in Floyd County, the plaintiffs separately sought information from the city attorney, city controller and city parks director in August. Information requested included details on revenue and expense records for River Run Family Water Park for 2018, correspondence between multiple city officials and Denton Floyd Real Estate Group between May 2017 to June 2018, and invoices for work performed in 2018 and 2019 by ProMedia Group and advertising in the News and Tribune during the same time period.
The plaintiffs submitted requests for the records under the Access to Public Records Act, which states that the governmental agency must respond to the requests within a certain timeframe and if the request is denied, cite the reason why.
But the plaintiffs say the city did not respond and on Oct. 7, so they filed a formal complaint with Indiana Public Access Counselor Luke Britt. He issued an opinion Oct. 30, finding that the city had violated the Access to Public Records Act, both by failing to give any response to those initially requesting the information, and then by failing to respond to the public access office after it notified the city of the complaint.
"The Access to Public Records Act states that 'providing persons with information is an essential function of a representative government and an integral part of the routine duties of public officials and employees, whose duty it is to provide the information,'" according to Britt's opinion. He added that under this law, "unless otherwise provided by statute, any person may inspect and copy the city's public records during regular business hours."
Court records show the civil suit was filed Nov. 1 and that an appearance was filed Nov. 25 by Gibson, who also requested an extension to reply to the complaint by Dec. 10. The extension was granted, however, no response was filed by that date. On Dec. 18, Carmichael issued the default judgment previously requested by the plaintiffs.
Staff reporter Brooke McAfee contributed to this story.