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Settlement Gets Green Light
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Settlement Gets Green Light
City, cable group at odds over public information; grant application fails




The city of Wilson ended a yearlong court battle this week after fighting the release of public information about its Greenlight broadband system.

The case was essentially settled Tuesday after the city paid the N.C. Cable Telecommunications Association $25,000 toward its legal fees, which attorney Charles Coble with Brooks, Pierce, McLendon, Humphrey and Leonard estimated cost at least $70,000.

"It was intended to avoid further costs," said city attorney Jim Cauley with Rose, Rand and Wallace. "It was an economic decision to avoid further court action, additional filings and attorney fees on both sides."

Wilson City Council decided in June to settle the case and authorized Cauley to reach an agreement after learning association attorneys wanted to recover $70,000 or more in attorney fees.

"We were disappointed to have to bring a lawsuit to get access to these public documents," said attorney Marcus W. Trathen, who represents the cable group. "The law requires that public records be turned over 'promptly.' If the city had only done what the law requires this case would not have gone on for so many months."

Mayor Bruce Rose signed the settlement on Aug. 24 and the Raleigh law firm received its check Tuesday.

"The council basically made an economic decision," said Grant Goings, Wilson city manager. "The settlement amount was about one-third of what they requested. They thought it was much better to settle."

 

THE CASE

The settlement was reached at the tail end of a court case that started after Trathen sent a letter to Goings on Sept. 10, 2009 requesting a copy of an application for $19.58 million in federal stimulus dollars to expand Greenlight, the city's cable, telephone and Internet service. Trathen did not receive a reply and filed a lawsuit on Sept. 25 on behalf of the N.C. Cable Telecommunications Association contending the application was a matter of public record, according to N.C. Gen. Stat. 132.

Cable association members were interested in reading the city's Broadband Technologies Opportunity Program application so they could comment on the proposal during a public comment period before the grants were issued in November.

Association members, which include Wilson's broadband competitor Time Warner Cable, questioned if the application was valid because the grants were intended for the expansion of broadband systems into unserved and underserved areas.

The city's broadband network was built citywide in 2007 with $28 million in bonds. Services were launched in 2008. The application included a proposed expansion of the network to provide reduced-cost or no-cost broadband lines to homes of Wilson County school children, a health network, increased lines for police and other improvements that would enhance the network in the city, Goings said.

The city opposed the release of the application and fought the issue in court, stating it was protected under the Critical Infrastructure Information Act, which allows information to remain out of the public domain, particularly when the revelation of the information could lead to infrastructure being vulnerable to attack or sabotage by terrorist or criminal activity, court records show.

"It had very specific details of the construction of the infrastructure," Goings said. "Since this network is going to be used by police and utilities, we felt, just as we protect our other critical infrastructure, this needed to be protected as well for security purposes."

The city wasn't awarded the grant.

 

HOMELAND SECURITY

Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Milton F. "Toby" Fitch heard the case in Wilson County Superior Court on Oct. 12 and concluded the application was a public record and ordered the document be released to the cable association immediately. The records were ordered for release on Nov. 6 and by Nov. 10, the association filed a show-cause order for contempt against the city after the city did not release the application.

The city appealed the decision and asked the court to suspend the order since city officials were waiting on information from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that would support its belief that the application was protected under federal law from disclosure. The Department of Homeland Security never made a determination on whether the application was protected by federal law, according to court documents.

The city was found in willful contempt of the court order for not releasing the records and ordered to do so on Feb. 17. The records were released but under seal to the court the same day.

The city filed and was granted a motion for a temporary stay by the N.C. Court of Appeals. The stay was eventually dissolved by the court. The case went back to superior court and Fitch ordered the records be released to the cable association in May.

"We are pleased Judge Fitch agreed that Wilson's grant application is a public record under North Carolina law," Coble said. "It's a shame our client was forced to file a lawsuit to obtain the application."

After the application was given to the association, the city's contempt ruling was removed.

 

SETTLEMENT

Cable association attorneys continued with the case by asking for a hearing to recover attorney fees, to complete a deposition at Cauley's office and requested all documents related to the federal application be released.

The city then filed a request for a protective order for any further depositions or document requests related to the case. The protective order request states that it would help protect the city from unreasonable annoyance, embarrassment, oppression or undue burden or expense.

A June 9 hearing led to both parties deciding to seek a solution to the case, which resulted in this week's settlement agreement, Coble said.

"We already had the document so the only issue still pending was our request for attorney fees," Coble said. "(Fitch) didn't make any rulings and he said from the bench that he wanted the two parties to see if we could reach an agreement and we were able to reach an agreement."

The settlement ends the court case but the battle was expected by city officials, including Goings, who said the association primarily represents Time Warner Cable, the city's biggest competitor in the market.

"We have known from the very beginning that, if we built a fiber-optic network, it would basically be a situation where we'll constantly be in court with Time Warner," Goings said. "We're not surprised. I think this won't be the last time we have a court case with Time Warner."

A request to the city for estimated city attorney fees in relation to the case was not available Tuesday but pending.

rochelle@wilsontimes.com | 265-7818
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Huh? said...

Time Warner Cable cost the taxpayers thousands of dollars?? The judges sided with them because the city wasn't following the rules. If anyone cost the taxpayers money, it was the city itself. And I'm sure Greenlight will raise their rates for their customers in order to recoup the costs. They'll get their money back, but the taxpayers never will.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010 at 6:42 PM
Reality Check said...

Some are saying this is Time Warner Cables fault. The reality is that the City of Wilson tried to play fast and loose with a disregard to the cost to the citizens of Wilson. In addition to the $25,000 paid for opposing council legal fees, we also foot the bill for all the time spent on this by the city attorney and all the travel expenses.
If the city had not tried to hide behind flimsy legal acrobatics, the city would not have to have shelled out all this money. This means less money would need to be gutted from the citizens of this town who already pay way too much in utilities and property taxes to support the outrageously inflated budget the City continues to approve each year.
Wake Up Wilson!!!! It is not ok that civil leaders use Certificates of Participation to pay for additional projects they know citizens would not vote to implement. This puts an undo burden on the people who call Wilson home in an economy that cannot support their fleecing of the residents.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010 at 2:23 PM
JB said...

Let's remember here that Time-Warner Cable has just cost the taxpaper thousands and thousands of dollars. This is another example of how Big Business uses laws enacted to inform citizens to their public relations advantage. Time-Warner is upset because someone came in and spoiled their dictatorship and are looking for any chance to make Greenlight look like the bad guy while, at the same time, costing Greenlight and the City thousands of dollars. It's a win-win for them. And just another reason I don't trust big business.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010 at 12:07 PM
Look at the Pic said...

The picture of the two gentlemen at the beginning of the article makes them both look crooked.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010 at 9:56 AM
KH said...

Here is yet another example of the disregard to public meetings laws and information. There seems to be a common theme in Wilson that certain rules can be ignored or "interpreted" to keep the public from getting facts and information that should be available. It is time for more transparency in our leadership. JMO

Wednesday, September 01, 2010 at 8:55 AM
Ricardo Dew said...

It was said that no tax dollars would be used in greenlight. Well we now know what we knew then that was and is a lie. There will be $25,000 up front looking at maybe $45,000 more and who knows how much the city attorney's fee is. Why did they not tell what that was? We have a right to know.Greenlight will put Wilson in the Red. Who voted to have it anyway? Will the city come clean and tell us just how much has been put into greenlight and at what point will they say that greenlight failed.I have greenlight in my home if I got to pay for it may as well get something for my money. But not pay for it twice. Taxes and home services. Will be dropping it. Don't need to pay out anymore than I have to in these times.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010 at 7:43 AM
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