School District of Beloit pays legal fees

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BELOIT — The School District of Beloit has paid $35,370.33 to attorneys representing the Beloit Daily News in its recent successful public records enforcement action against the

district.

Both sides have signed a stipulation and order for dismissal, essentially bringing the case to conclusion.

The newspaper sought and the school district denied access to a document written by the former superintendent, in which he claimed to reveal information that would “set the district on fire.” The document was related to a complaint by a female former administrator alleging that she had been mistreated by former superintendent Steve McNeal. The district settled that complaint at a cost in excess of $300,000.

The newspaper sued to obtain the document, seeking a court order for its release under Wisconsin’s Public Records Law.

Rock County Circuit Judge Michael Fitzpatrick agreed with the newspaper’s assertion that the school district’s refusal to disclose the document was a violation of the law, and ordered the school district to release it in redacted form to the Beloit Daily News.

The Wisconsin Public Records Law provides that “... the court shall award reasonable attorneys fees, damages of not less than $100, and other actual costs to the requester if the requester prevails in whole or in substantial part in any action filed ...”

“While anyone remotely familiar with this newspaper knows we are fully committed to protecting and preserving the public’s right to know, we do not take lightly a decision to bring an enforcement action in court against a governmental body,” Editor Bill Barth said. “It’s both bruising and expensive. So we do our best to give government decision-makers ample opportunity to do the right thing and disclose public information. In this instance we believed the right choice was to challenge the district’s refusal to come clean. The judge agreed with us.”

Barth also said it’s important to note that any citizen has the same rights to information, and to bring legal action.

“The Public Records Law exists to serve an informed population,” Barth said. “Our rights are your rights. Reporters have no special status. The law reminds government officials that information belongs to the people, and this action reminds officials that a judge can have the final word.”

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