City requests end to ongoing lawsuit

From staff reports

A court case which has dragged on for more than eight years and cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars may nearly be closed.

The case, which began with Edward Verhovec suing the city of Marietta, ended with the city suing Verhovec. The various lawsuits have cost the city more than $800,000.

Tuscarawas County residents Edward and Dorothy Verhovec began seeking public records from the city of Marietta in 2010, requesting access to the results of a survey the city had conducted about cable television in 1999. Verhovec sought compensation through the courts after the city missed a deadline for producing the documents by four days.

Under public records laws in Ohio, Verhovec and his attorney, William Walker of Massilon, argued that they were due damages as an aggrieved party.

That argument was rejected in Washington County Common Pleas Court in July 2012, but Verhovec and Walker appealed. The Ohio Fourth District Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s ruling in December 2013, which found the lawsuit was frivolous and had the intent of enriching the plaintiffs rather than serving any other purpose.

According to court documents, the Verhovecs owed the city $274,033.49, but with interest charges and court costs, the amount had increased to $315,310.89 by December 2017. The longer the judgment isn’t paid, the more it will continue to increase.

“It continues to accrue interest from the date of entry,” said Paul Bertram, Marietta city law director.

The City of Marietta filed a motion for summary judgment in the courtroom of Washington County Common Pleas Judge Randall Burnworth Friday afternoon. Friday’s court appearance was in response to a creditor’s bill filed in December 2017 to recover the judgment against Verhovec.

“Under civil rules, there are rules that say there are no material facts in dispute and the judge can make the decision based on motions of the parties,” explained Bertram. “They indicated there were no material issues of the facts that they owe us the money. It then comes down to collection and how to collect.”

Court findings also indicated that the Verhovecs and Walker had filed numerous similar record requests in several Ohio communities, including Trotwood and Springfield.

The law states that in some cases where the public agency has improperly disposed of records, the records requestor can file suit as an aggrieved party and seek damages. Such lawsuits followed many of the records requests by the Verhovecs and Walker that could not be fulfilled.

“The court will enter a decision, but the city of Marietta is being sued in Tuscarawas County,” Bertram said. “We haven’t been served yet in Tuscarawas County Common Pleas Court.”

Bertram said he’s seen the document, but hasn’t been served by mail yet.

“We’re being sued by another company that has a lien on property the Verhovecs own,” he said.

Marietta is being sued because the city is asking for rent money paid to the Verhovecs to instead be paid to the city to pay off the judgment from December 2017.

In the case filed that year, four tenants of the Verhovecs — Renee Weistener, Ken Sparks, Linda Sparks and Dan Kohler — were also named defendants in the case.

“In trying to get paid, we can request that the tenants pay the rent to the city,” Bertram said.

Bertram said earlier this year that the city attempted early on in the process to settle with the Verhovecs, but offers were rejected.

“The potential return for them could have been in the millions of dollars under the law at that time,” he said. “They would have been due certain statutory damages per day.”

The law being used by the Verhovecs was intended to promote transparency in government, he said, but some aspects of it had unintended consequences.

“That whole process is now changed because someone figured out a way to exploit it,” he said. “After the case was settled, it was interesting because you’d go to legal seminars and you’d hear them talking about the Verhovec cases.”

In addition to changing Ohio law, the Verhovec case prompted the city to extensively revise its own records retention and destruction policy, Bertram said.

“We’ve revamped everything, we have a records commission, everybody has a policy that keeps the public records aspect at the forefront,” he said. “We try to respond to requests as quickly as possible.”

At a glance:

• Aug. 21, 2010: Dorothy and Edward Verhovec make a written public records request for more than 20 years of Marietta City Council meeting minutes, along with handwritten drafts of minutes by council clerks and audio recordings of the minutes.

• Through April 28, 2011: The couple made eight additional public records requests from the city, ranging from results of a cable television survey conducted in 1999 and consisting of 16,242 separate responses, to copies of newsletters for a period of more than 20 years received by the city from the Ohio Municipal League.

• 2012: The Verhovecs filed a lawsuit claiming that they had suffered damages as “aggrieved parties,” a claim that was rejected by Washington County Common Pleas Court.

• 2013: The Verhovecs appealed to the Ohio Fourth District Court, which upheld the trial court’s decision.

• 2017: The city of Marietta starts pursuing claims against the Verhovecs.

Source: Times research.