by the Florida Times-Union’s Amanda Williamson
February 9, 2017
Jacksonville activist Curtis Lee, who battled the city’s Police and Fire Pension Fund over a costly records request, has been recognized by the First Amendment Foundation for his efforts to ensure a more open government.
“I’m pleased for the recognition,” Lee said. “I did what I did not to make money, but because I thought it was the right thing to do.”
About six years after Lee relocated to Jacksonville from New York, he spotted a story in The Florida Times-Union about the underfunded Police and Fire Pension Fund. It sparked his interest.
He became a regular at council and pension fund meetings. But ultimately, his simple request for documents from the pension fund spiraled into three court cases and more than $400,000 in legal fees for the city of Jacksonville.
Before Lee could even view the documents, he was told he would have to pay $326. Lee said he would pay only for the documents he wanted to copy. However, the pension fund managers still wanted the $326, plus $280 to have someone monitor him while he sifted through records, a 2015 Florida Times-Union article said.
Lee sued — and he won. The win came with a bit of a snag: He wouldn’t get a reimbursement for his legal fees. On appeal, Jacksonville Police and Fire Pension Fund tried to argue it had made an honest mistake and violated the law in good faith. The court sided with Lee, instructing the pension fund to pay $75,000 to Lee. The Florida Supreme Court agreed.
To Lee, the win has statewide implications. The First Amendment Foundation, through its award, recognizes his effort.
Governments already have a large advantage over citizens, who usually do not have as much money as these entities to contribute to a legal fight. A court decision saying governments could then avoid paying judgments if it was determined they violated the law in good faith, Lee said, would further tip the scales.
“If that was the case, the effectiveness of the law and of the public’s right to records would be undercut,” Lee said.
Florida Times-Union editor at large Frank Denton won the award in 2014. Also to be recognized this year, Scott Ellis, clerk of the court for Brevard County, won the 2016 Pete Weitzel/Friend of the First Amendment Award.
Both awards will be presented at the foundation’s annual Sunshine Recognition luncheon March 14 at the Governor’s Club in Tallahassee during Florida’s Sunshine Week celebrations. [READ MORE]