PERRY -- A legal battle over public records between a mortgage lender and the city of Warner Robins got under way Wednesday in Houston County Superior Court with arguments from attorneys.
Allison Equities contends that the city has a pattern of violating open records laws that not only affect the mortgage lender but also the public’s right to know how government is run and how public funds are spent.
The city counters that the lender is bolstering a public records battle in a leverage attempt for personal gain.
Such was the crux of opening arguments in a non-jury trial before Judge George F. Nunn on alleged violations of the Open Records Act by the city and its officials.
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John Smith, an attorney representing Allison Equities, which brought the lawsuit, said the mortgage lender still does not have the records first requested in 2009.
He told the judge that a simple request about whether the city was still interested in purchasing Tabor Drive property that Allison Equities obtained through a foreclosure grew into a legal fight over public records.
He said it’s an expensive fight Allison Equities has undertaken not only for its benefit but also on behalf of the public.
Jones told the judge he expects to show a pattern of how the city and its officials blatantly disregard requests for open records across the board.
But Tom Richardson, one of the attorneys representing the city, told the judge that city officials acted in good faith and responded to the requests for the public documents.
Richardson argued Smith has overblown the matter in a “bizarre” fashion and has made it “personal.”
He argued that Smith was bolstering a battle for open records as a means of “leverage to get the city to buy property” owned by Allison Equities.
Smith, who was given the opportunity to speak first, took the judge through how Allison Equities first got embroiled in the legal battle.
The mortgage lender foreclosed on an apartment complex that stretches across 214, 216 and 218 Tabor Drive. The complex is vacant.
At one time, the city had expressed interest in purchasing the property. Allison Equities wanted to find out if the city was still interested, which led to a series of open records requests after simple telephone inquires failed, Smith said.
Suspicion arose as the city failed to comply with the requests that the city had something to hide, Smith told the judge.
The suspicion was that the city may have been attempting to devalue property in an area that was targeted for revitalization, Smith told the judge. The city later abandoned the project and federal grant funds for the project. The apartment complex was included in the project’s target area.
The complex went into foreclosure after the borrower was unable to fix or upgrade the apartments based on city moratorium that was related to the revitalization plan, Smith said. Because the borrower was unable to repair and fix up the apartments, the apartments did not rent, and the borrower went “belly up,” Smith said.
Smith argued city officials “knowingly and willfully” violated the state law by withholding records; by not responding to Smith’s requests to inspect public records within three business days; and not responding in writing within three business days to the requests.
Smith argued that the city’s lack of compliance with the law was not an isolated incident with Allison Equities.
“It’s not something that occurred out of the blue,” Smith told the judge. “It’s something that’s occurring across the board.”
But Richardson complained to the judge that Smith’s open records requests came in “vague and overbroad” correspondence that sometimes went to the wrong official. He said the requests were answered by telephone calls, e-mails or by agreement with a city official. Smith also said that written responses to open records requests are required only in limited circumstances.
Richardson said the city acknowledged that it initially told Smith he was not entitled to the records because he lives out of state but quickly corrected that position and complied.
Also, Richardson said it’s true that the city did not have records it should have kept. But Richardson said that the city was eventually able to provide those records through Urban Design Associates, which created the development plan.
Richardson also acknowledged that City Attorney Jim Elliott and former Mayor John Havrilla did destroy index cards dating back to the 1980s kept by a former Warner Robins police chief about different citizens in the community, he said. The cards were discovered in the late Mayor Donald Walker’s office after his suicide in 2009. Although Elliott later signed a city record retention form for the destruction of public documents in regard to the cards, Richardson said he did not believe the cards destroyed qualified as official public records.
Nunn previously denied Allison Equities’ request for an independent third party to examine whether the city violated the open records laws.
The civil case is expected to continue through Friday.