MUNCIE, Ind. (WISH) — The City of Muncie doesn’t want you to know how much they’re spending in legal fees.
The City and Mayor Dennis Tyler are fighting a lawsuit from the former police chief, Steve Stewart. I-Team 8 wants to know how much the city is paying an outside law firm to defend them, but they won’t tell us.
Former police chief files suit
In the lawsuit, Stewart said he was all but forced out, and when he left the city, he says his benefits were calculated incorrectly, shorting him thousands of dollars he says the city owes him. So, the City of Muncie hired an Indianapolis law firm to help them in the case.
Roads, sidewalks and police officers are some of the things your tax dollars pay for. But if you live in Muncie, they’re also paying for some big time Indianapolis attorneys. On Nov. 15, I-Team 8 requested information about the deal between Muncie and the law firm – contracts, retainer fees, payment schedule – all information you have the right to know under state law. Personnel Director Sarah Beach declined all of our requests, citing an attorney-client privilege. She did say the city has paid the law firm $464,690.07 since Jan. 1, 2016, but would not tell us how much of that is for the Stewart case, again citing attorney-client privilege.
When Muncie Mayor Dennis Tyler was confronted with the city’s denial of records requests, he called a news conference.
“I’d like to clear up some confusion that the City of Muncie may be refusing to release public information,” said Tyler. “The city has always and will always be transparent to its citizens, providing any public information when it’s requested. We have and will continue to provide any information, as requested, in accordance with the Indiana code.”
What the experts say
However, after that news conference the city continued to cite attorney-client privilege to deny I-Team 8’s requests. And the information we are seaking is information you, the public, have a right to know. We went to Luke Britt, the Indiana Public Access Counselor, who is an expert on what information public officials are required to share.
“Constituents have a right to know what their money is being used for and so, typically invoices, letters of engagement, service agreements, contracts are well within the scope of what is in-bounds for a public records request,” said Britt, who read our request and the City of Muncie’s response.
Britt said he has seen government officials try and use attorney-client privilege to deny similar requests, but that would not apply to how many tax dollars they’re spending. Britt often consults cities on how to respond to records requests, but says Muncie never consulted him in this case.
“As public officials, myself included, we’re stewards of the public’s trust and resources and so I think it’s absolutely 100 percent essential that they know how their money is being used,” said Britt. “They’re our bosses, we’re civil servants, and they are our employers, so I think that accountability and that transparency is crucial in the democratic process.”
I-Team 8 went back to the City of Muncie with a new records request to see if we could get any more specific information about how your money is being spent, and again they turned it down.