Judge to decide lawyer fee question in suit against Godfrey

Steve Korris Feb. 3, 2010, 4:56am

Madison County Associate Judge Clarence Harrison must decide whether to award a fee to lawyers who successfully sued the village of Godfrey to make an appraisal public.

John Stobbs, of Stobbs and Sinclair, told Harrison on Jan. 29 that his firm saved the village about $340,000 by stopping a plan to buy land for a highway.

"We have had a good result for the taxpayers and the people of Godfrey," Stobbs said.

He seeks about $36,000.

For the village, Thomas Long argued that Harrison shouldn't award any fee.

Harrison took it under advisement.

In 2007, village officials signed letters of understanding to buy land for $341,700.

When citizens complained about the price, mayor Michael Campion told them the village based it on an appraisal.

When Stobbs asked to see the appraisal, Campion declared it confidential.

Stobbs sued in Madison County circuit court for access to the appraisal.

The village moved for summary judgment, arguing that the state freedom of information law exempts real estate negotiations.

Associate Judge Thomas Chapman granted the village's motion.

Fifth District appeals judges in Mount Vernon reversed Chapman and held that village officials waived confidentiality by discussing the appraisal at public meetings.

"Federal courts have held that a voluntary disclosure of records in one situation can preclude later claims that those records are exempt from release," they wrote.

"We agree with plaintiff that this is exactly what happened here," they wrote.

Chief Judge Ann Callis had reassigned judges in the meantime, so the case landed in Harrison's court.

Stobbs requested a fee in November.

"Sometimes it takes a lawyer to stand up for the rights of the public," he wrote.

At Harrison's hearing, Long tried to argue that Stobbs didn't win the case.

"I don't know that the court has said we actually lost this case," Long said.

"We almost need an evidentiary hearing," Long said.

Harrison said, "Did the Fifth District ask for a hearing in its order?"

Long said no.

Harrison said he would look at the purpose of the law.

Stobbs said the purpose was fulfilled.

After the hearing, Stobbs said the appraisal was flawed because it compared farmland to improved lots in residential zones.

"The former mayor negotiated with owners to acquire property in circumstances that were in violation of federal law and Department of Transportation regulations," he said.

Campion lost a bid for re-election.

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