FIFE LAKE — Village council officials in this community weren't happy with their appointed clerk, and when she filed an open records request they sent her a bill equal to 23 months of her salary to cover a law firm's invoice.
Village officials sent long-time Clerk Corey Caverson a bill for $2,312 after she asked to review 28 email exchanges between Village President Lisa Leedy and new township attorney Ross Hammersley.
Caverson didn't pay the tab, and Hammersely recently advised village officials to drop their payment demands. Meanwhile, an open records expert said the bill to Caverson isn't allowable under state law and could have a deterrent effect on others who attempt to obtain public information.
But the tussle likely accomplished its intended purpose: Caverson resigned.
"Ten months of bullying was enough," Caverson said.
Caverson, who earns $100 a month as clerk, sent a Freedom of Information Act request to Fife Lake attorney Hammersley, of the Traverse City firm of Olson, Bzdok and Howard, and sought 28 email exchanges between Hammersley and Leedy. Caverson said the village council switched law firms early in 2014 and within four months the new firm's legal bills far exceeded the village's annual budget for attorney fees.
She and a village trustee wanted to know what was behind the bills.
"We used to get all of the attorney correspondence so we knew what was going on, but there were no documents in the office," Caverson said. "We repeatedly requested it and got nothing."
Leedy said she never received the request and didn't know her predecessors had kept confidential attorney correspondence in a file in the village hall. She acknowledged a "personality conflict" among some village officials and that several of the long-time village employees have had difficulty adjusting to change. But she said no bullying occurred and if Caverson had asked, she would have filed the documents.
Most of the documents requested by Caverson were denied under an exemption for attorney-client communications and Hammersley did not bill Caverson for the few documents he provided her.
But he sent the village a bill for more than 14 hours that he and law firm partner Jeff Jocks spent on research, discussions with Leedy, and memos to the village council.
Hammersley's memo denying Caverson's claim that the council could not bill her for the fees led to council's decision to send the bill.
"You can ask anyone to pay a bill," Hammersley said. "But I never told them they would be entitled to payment if they asked."
Leedy said she was never sure they were entitled to payment from Caverson, but didn't think taxpayers should have to pay legal fees because Caverson did not communicate with her.
Hammersley instructed the village council to withdraw the bill shortly after the Record-Eagle contacted him for comment. He was not attempting to skirt prohibitions in state law that prevent charging for legal expenses, he said. The invoice was sent because of incomplete instructions from him to the village council, he added.
Robin Luce Herrmann, an expert in open records law who represents the Michigan Press Association, said she has concerns about how village officials handled the matter and the chilling effect their actions could have on other public records requests.
"I'm concerned that this would have a deterrent effect, and it's not a permissible fee under the FOIA," Luce Herrmann said.
She also questioned the validity of village council members blaming the clerk for their legal bill.
"In my experience attorneys would obtain permission from the client before incurring those fees," she said.
Hammersly agreed sending a legal bill of $2,300 to a member of the general public could have a deterrent effect.
"You certainly do not want to chill the general public from requesting public documents under FOIA ... and there is nothing I am aware of through his entire case that attempts to do that," he said.
Caverson said she never intended to pay the bill but she's glad to have the matter resolved.