Archive for Saturday, January 24, 2004

Judge: City officials must testify in lawsuits

January 24, 2004


The city must make its officials and records available to plaintiffs' lawyers in lawsuits challenging City Hall's refusal to allow a Wal-Mart store at Sixth Street and Wakarusa Drive, a Douglas County judge ruled Friday.

Attorneys for the city had asked District Judge Michael Malone to quash deposition subpoenas for City Manager Mike Wildgen, Assistant City Manager Dave Corliss, Planning Director Linda Finger and Neighborhood Resources Director Victor Torres.

R. Scott Beeler, an attorney for the city, said there already was plenty of evidence available from existing public records for Malone to decide the cases.

"There's no statement here that the record is insufficient for the court to rule," Beeler said. Plaintiffs, he said, "are on a fishing expedition."

But attorneys for Wal-Mart and 6Wak Land Investments, the landowner, told Malone that state law allowed attorneys substantial access to possible evidence in a lawsuit -- a process known as "discovery."

"They're a public institution," Wal-Mart attorney Timothy Sear said. "We're entitled to know what they're up to."

Malone agreed, ruling against the city's motions.

Wal-Mart and 6Wak -- a partnership of Lawrence developers Bill Newsome and former City Commissioner Doug Compton -- are both suing the city for its refusal to allow the proposed 132,000-square-foot store at the northwest corner of Sixth Street and Wakarusa Drive. The city argues that Wal-Mart is a department store prohibited by the site's zoning. Wal-Mart and 6Wak say it is an allowable variety store.

Friday's court hearing came just more than a week after Wal-Mart and 6Wak attorneys showed up at City Hall to take Finger's deposition but were turned down by city officials. 6Wak attorneys said Friday they had decided not to seek sanctions against the city for that act.

Sear said the city never had given an official reason for the denial of building permits for the project.

"We believe Miss Finger will testify she never believed Wal-Mart to be a department store," Sear told Malone. "That's what the city doesn't want this court to find out."

Beeler denied the city was trying to stall the lawsuits or keep information from public light.

"We want to get to the essence of this issue," Beeler said. "We're not delaying anything."

While he denied the city's requests to quash subpoenas and limit discovery, Malone said sanctions could be imposed if 6Wak and Wal-Mart abused the process.

"Pretrial discovery is not an unfettered fishing expedition," Malone said, "but neither is it shooting fish in a barrel."

Beeler declined comment afterward. Newsome said he was pleased with the decision.

"Obviously, a lot of things went on behind the scenes in the city's denial of the building permits," he said. "We just want to shed light on what happened."

The next scheduled hearing in the case is Feb. 19.

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