The lawsuit filed by the sheriff’s office against Grant County has been settled.
Following an executive session Sept. 12, the Grant County Court agreed to settle the case for $14,000 after negotiating with the plaintiffs’ private law firm, Hostetter Law Group.
On behalf of clients Sheriff Glenn Palmer, former civil deputy Sally DeFord and the sheriff’s office, Hostetter Law Group sued Grant County and its board of commissioners in March, arguing the county was required to cover legal expenses incurred by the clients when they retained the law group as private counsel after The Oregonian newspaper sued them in a public records dispute.
Stating that attorneys representing county governments usually handle such legal matters, not private attorneys, a judge dismissed the suit July 10 — concluding public records lawsuits were not covered under the Oregon Tort Claims Act, which would have required the county to pay for the defense of its agents — but Hostetter Law Group sought to have a judge reconsider the opinion, stating its clients were denied representation by the county attorney.
After the decision to settle the case, County Commissioner Rob Raschio said standing up for principles can be expensive and that the litigation could have gone on for another year. He didn’t expect the county would lose the case, but he said it could have cost the county another $14,000 to litigate it.
Attorney Zachary Hostetter said he was pleased with the settlement.
“In 2017 former civil deputy Sally DeFord, Sheriff Palmer, and the Grant County Sheriff’s Office were forced to defend against a lawsuit filed against them,” he said in a statement. “In such circumstances it is extremely important for hard-working public servants to know that they will be provided with legal representation. We are very pleased that Grant County has agreed to settle this matter.”
Hostetter said Palmer was out of the office and unable to comment.
The settlement was considerably less than the $41,000 legal bill Hostetter Law Group said the sheriff’s office incurred defending against The Oregonian lawsuit, according to court documents.
The $14,000 payment will come out of the sheriff’s office’s communications equipment budget — the same budget line item the county court agreed to use to pay $28,000 to The Oregonian after a judge awarded the newspaper attorney fees as the prevailing party in its lawsuit against the sheriff’s office because the lawsuit prompted the disclosure of public records.
Raschio said the $14,000 figure approximated the legal costs incurred by DeFord, whom the county court agreed was working under Palmer and shouldn’t be held accountable for the lawsuit.
John Day resident Jim Spell reacted to the court’s announcement, stating the sheriff had disobeyed the state’s public records law and had not acted as an adult in the matter.
“We bailed him out,” Spell said.
Raschio said he was uncomfortable seeing DeFord’s legal costs continue to climb if the case continued.
Another reason for settling was that the case was dividing the community and needed to be resolved, Raschio said. The community needs to regain its faith in law enforcement, he said.
Spell agreed it was important for the community to understand that the two settlements saved the county money and that the county needed to stand up for DeFord. He also said he hoped the sheriff had learned from this experience. If Palmer wasn’t an elected official, he could have been fired for what he did, Spell said.
Grant County Judge Scott Myers said he had a long discussion with Palmer and believes everyone “learned a lesson.” Myers also agreed with Raschio that settling the case saved the county money in the long run.
Raschio said he also had a discussion with the sheriff. If a similar situation occurs in the future and Palmer encounters an “aggressive reporter,” he was advised to discuss the matter with the county counsel, Raschio said.
Jim Sproul also commented on the settlement announcement, calling it the “right thing” to do. He said he was glad the case was over and that it should have concluded long ago.