A three-year court battle between the Mail Tribune and Jackson County Sheriff Mike Winters over concealed handgun license public records has cost the county nearly $44,000.
Winters was required to pay the newspaper's legal expenses after the Oregon Court of Appeals ruled in June that Winters was wrong to deny the Mail Tribune's request for the names of 2006 and 2007 concealed handgun licensees. The newspaper sent a bill of about $20,674, while the county's own legal expenses reached about $22,860, according to the county counsel's office.
"We really had no desire to see the sheriff spend money on legal fees instead of patrol deputies, but we also think it's important to make sure that public officials follow the law themselves and that they make every effort to keep public records open to the public," said Mail Tribune Editor Bob Hunter.
The newspaper had sought the public records to discover how many teachers in the county had permits to carry a concealed handgun.
That information was pertinent to another story the newspaper was covering in 2007 involving Shirley Katz, an English teacher at South Medford High School, who sued the Medford School District seeking to be allowed to carry her concealed handgun on campus.
"I've said it many times, but I'll say it again: If the sheriff or anybody else wants to make concealed weapons permits exempt from public records laws, they should go to the Legislature and ask them to do it," Hunter said.
But Winters said, in spite of the expense, he has no regrets about fighting the Mail Tribune over the records.
"Both the time and money expended during the judicial process was necessary in order to protect school teachers who possess handgun licenses in Jackson County," Winters said. "Concealed handgun licensees who reside in Jackson County should not have to worry about their private information being made public due to general curiosity."
The newspaper never planned to publish the names of licensees, Hunter said. Rather, the newspaper planned to use the names to count how many licensees were teachers who could potentially carry guns to school, he said. Katz's lawsuit was ultimately dismissed by the appeals court.
The records have not yet been turned over to the Mail Tribune.
Andrea Carlson, a Sheriff's Department spokeswoman, said there were 3,000 to 5,000 licences in 2006 and 2007. The time involved in providing a list of those names probably would involve charging the newspaper thousands of dollars for staff time. The county counsel is working on calculating a cost estimate.
Government agencies are allowed under law to charge for staff time and paper expended in fulfilling public records requests.
Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.