by TC Palm’s Lidia Dinkova
February 27, 2017
The county has settled a portion of the larger Lake Point rock mine lawsuit as an arbitrator found that the county “failed to take public records requests seriously,” court records show.
Lake Point, just east of Lake Okeechobee, sued the county in 2013 saying the county breached their agreement and, later, the rock mine also sued over public records law violations alleging, in part, that the county took too long to produce public records.
The arbitrator’s findings, which the County Commission last week voted not to object to, leave Martin County on the hook to pay $371,801 to Lake Point for attorney’s fees.
According to arbitrator Howard Googe, the county and some commissioners had a pattern of fail
ure to comply with Lake Point’s public records requests.
“There was a pattern and practice of non-compliance and lack of diligence by the county and certain County Commissioners in preserving and producing public records pursuant to the public records requests in this case,” Googe wrote in his Feb 15 decision.
Specifically, it took too long to submit emails from former Commissioner Anne Scott and Commissioner Ed Fielding’s private email accounts, and emails from Commissioner Sarah Heard’s private email accounts were altered, Googe said.
Scott, for her part, said the county was at fault and not her.
“I relied on the county to have in place safeguards and policies to comply with the Florida laws in regards to the records they keep. Now I find out they didn’t. No one ever asked for my personal email address. No one ever asked for all of my personal email addresses,” Scott said Monday. “I looked for something that I didn’t know I had as soon as somebody asked me to look for it.”
Fielding said he, too, made his emails available as soon as he was told which email account to look into.
“When we were told, ‘Look here,’ when we did that we found it and we immediately made it available,” he said.
Heard could not be reached for comment.
Some of the emails are from resident and former County Commissioner Maggy Hurchalla, an environmental advocate who has criticized Lake Point. According to Googe’s findings, she sent an email to Fielding suggesting he initiate a vote to end the agreement between the county and Lake Point, and she also sent an email to Heard suggesting she contact certain county departments and ask them to investigate Lake Point.
Hurchalla also is a defendant in the Lake Point lawsuit but not in the public-records allegations. The rock mine has sued her for making false statements that interfered with its agreement with the county.
On Monday, she declined to comment on the public records portion of the litigation. She denied making false statements about Lake Point and called it a SLAPP lawsuit, or a strategic lawsuit against public participation intended to censor critics.
“They are trying to use me as an example that nobody should ever criticize them in public,” she said.
Initially, in September 2015, a judge sided with the county in the public records dispute saying the county had “made a reasonable effort” to provide the requested records, court documents show. But then, in April, the county was ordered back to court after emails between Hurchalla and Scott were discovered. The emails would have met the parameters of Lake Point’s original public-records request, the judge concluded.
Eventually, the issue went to arbitrator Googe.
Lake Point also has sued the South Florida Water Management District alleging the district broke its contract.
The rock mine is roughly 1 mile east of Lake Okeechobee’s Port Mayaca Locks and between the C-44 Canal south and the Martin-Palm Beach county line, according to its website. [READ MORE]