Humboldt County and Lee Ulansey -- the recently appointed county planning commissioner and former director of the Humboldt Coalition for Property Rights -- will argue a public records case before a judge this week.
With the help of Eureka attorney Allison Jackson, Ulansey has been asking the county for attorney records for more than a year, calling for county transparency.
The records in question detail how much money the county has spent defending and prosecuting several lawsuits -- most prominently the county's suit against Bob McKee and more than 30 others over subdividing the Tooby Ranch property near Garberville. The county has spent more than $3 million on that particular legal battle, alleging that McKee accepted generous tax breaks in exchange for a promise not to develop his land -- then broke that promise. A Humboldt County judge is considering issuing a penalty for McKee's actions in the next few months.
Ulansey first submitted a public records request at the end of 2011, asking the county to turn over the payment information for attorneys hired by the county.
The county said no, arguing that details of an attorney's on-the-clock activities are protected by attorney-client privilege. It resisted until a state appellate court ruled in a similar case that the time and dollar amount spent on an attorney would not reveal that attorney's legal strategy. The state Supreme Court chose not to weigh in on the matter, effectively upholding the appellate court's decision.
Humboldt County relented, producing files that it said fulfilled the original public request HumCPR made back in 2011. But that wasn't the end.
Jackson and Ulansey said the records weren't sufficient -- they wanted how much time the county's in-house attorneys spent working on the lawsuits.
The county countered that those records don't exist, and that besides, Ulansey and Jackson didn't pick up the first batch of records before telling the court they were insufficient.
Since then, Jackson and Ulansey have looked over the files. The county's redactions went too far, they said, removing details about where visiting attorneys stayed and ate. They argued that attorney's time sheets -- some of which bill by the tenth of an hour -- should not have been redacted when they simply said the attorney was writing a letter, for example. The content of such a letter, they said, is the only information that should be protected by attorney-client privilege.
Unable to reach an agreement, the matter continued today in court with freshly hired attorney Bill Bragg helping the county.
The county was looking for a "fresh set of eyes," Bragg said following today's hearing. He said he'll talk with Jackson about a resolution this week, but he expects the two parties will present their arguments before a judge Friday.
Jackson called it "ironic" that the county hired outside counsel in a case about the price of hiring outside counsel. Neither she nor Ulansey would comment further on the case.