NEW ULM (AP) -- A district judge ordered Blue Earth County to pay $10,000 toward the attorney's fees of The Free Press of Mankato after the newspaper sued the county for blocking access to information the newspaper considered public.
"This certainly, in terms of Minnesota open records law, is a landmark ruling," said Mark Anfinson, the attorney representing The Free Press.
Brown County District Court Judge John Rodenberg ruled in May that most of the information sought by the newspaper was indeed public. On Monday, he ruled on the question of attorney's fees. The Free Press' total bill was more than $24,000.
"In pursuing this litigation," Rodenberg's order states, "(The Free Press) was attempting to vindicate the public's right to have access to important public information. The issues at stake here ... are not insignificant or unimportant."
The county's insurance company will cover the cost of the ruling.
County officials said months ago they'd probably appeal Rodenberg's ruling on the several counts in the lawsuit they lost. When contacted Wednesday, Blue Earth County Administrator Dennis McCoy declined to comment on the ruling, but said an appeal remains an option.
Anfinson said the ruling was significant because the law did not require Rodenberg to award attorney's fees, it only authorized him to do so.
"I think the judge recognized that we weren't dealing with subtleties of the law, that these are clear violations," Anfinson said.
Monday's ruling was the result of a lawsuit The Free Press filed when, while investigating the termination of former Land Records Supervisor Sandra King, it was denied access to information it considered public.
King led the Land Records department during a tumultuous time when appraisers made allegations of sloppy work that led to properties being missed or incorrectly appraised for tax purposes. A state audit followed.
Blue Earth County prevailed on one count in the five-count lawsuit, while The Free Press prevailed on the rest.
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