Herald-Tribune by John Kennedy Gate House Capital Bureau
May 28, 2018
TALLAHASSEE — A long-running clash between state water managers and a celebrated environmental activist is heightening tension over aggressive tactics used by Florida governments pushing back against citizens seeking public records.
The battle also is putting Florida at the forefront of a rising trend.
Instead of turning over requests for records, a growing number of cities, school boards and other government agencies across the nation are suing people seeking documents — forcing them to decide whether it’s worth fighting for their request in court — at their own expense.
Legislation to outlaw this tactic cleared the Florida House this year, but failed in the Senate.
“It’s a form of harassment,” said Frank LoMonte, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information, at the University of Florida.
“People can just seek a public record and find themselves suddenly dragged into court. They weren’t expecting that,” he added.
A fierce fight in Martin County has alarmed many government watchdogs.
Maggy Hurchalla, a former Martin County commissioner and sister of late U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, is appealing a $4.4 million judgment against her by a jury earlier this year, which found she used her influence as a conservationist to disparage a mining company’s project — sending critical emails to commissioners.
The verdict capped a five-year struggle marked by charges of public records violations involving two commissioners and a former commissioner.
It also led to an $18 million settlement for the mining company, Lake Point, from Martin County and the South Florida Water Management District.
Now, a related clash has emerged over public records requests for transcripts of the closed-door district meeting that preceded the costly legal settlement with Lake Point.
When the Everglades Law Center requested a record of what was said during the meeting, district lawyers sued the nonprofit, and threatened to subpoena Hurchalla and 16 citizens who made similar demands.
After a judge sided with water managers who refused to turn over transcripts, the records case — like the multi-million-dollar judgement against Hurchalla — is headed to the Fourth District Court of Appeal.
“We didn’t sue them. They sued us. All we did was ask for records,” said Lisa Interlandi, an attorney with the Everglades Law Center.
“All any of these people did was ask for records,” she added. “It’s very chilling. It’s like a move to chill people from requesting records.”
Attorneys for the South Florida Water Management District defended their action, saying the records request was basically a nuisance, designed to make the district pay the legal fees of Hurchalla and others if the documents were not surrendered quickly.