Investigative reporter Gina Edwards rested her case in the public records lawsuit against Collier County Clerk Dwight Brock on Tuesday without taking the stand.
Circuit Judge Fred Hardt may yet hear from the longtime journalist and owner of Naples City Desk, a digital newspaper that publishes at the WatchdogCity.com news web site, as Brock’s attorney Steven Blount has her listed among his witnesses.
Blount wondered aloud for the court why Edwards didn’t testify and said he was considering calling her himself.
“I was a little shocked not to hear from the plaintiff,” he said. “Frankly I have to decide whether or not I’m specifically going to call Ms. Edwards.”
Blount will have the night to think it over. Court reconvenes at 9 a.m.
Edwards filed suit against Brock, Clerk of Courts since 1993, in February when the bill for public records she requested came in at $556, one dollar each for 556 pages. Much of the testimony Tuesday, all of it by employees in Brock’s office, centered on the nature of the records, including 350 pages of emails that were printed out, scanned and then put onto a disc.
Edwards’ attorney Ryan Witmer argues the two discs responsive to the public records request should have cost her $2. Judge Hardt initially agreed, ordering Brock in March to charge $2, the cost of the discs.
The bench trial currently underway is in response to Brock’s request for an evidentiary hearing and trial.
Edwards records request came on the heels of stories she published on an audit his office did of Housing Opportunities Made for Everyone (H.O.M.E) that claimed federal money had been misused.
H.O.M.E. was operated by retired executive John Barlow, who ran against Brock in 2012. Edwards’ investigation found otherwise and her work questioned whether Brock used the audit to attack a political opponent.
Two discs she received before the stories were published cost $2, Edwards said. The $556 bill came after they were published.
Both the Fort Myers NewsPress and the Naples Daily News, where Edwards once worked, have editorialized in support of her fight, but neither major local news outlet has joined in the suit. Retired Naples Daily News editor and vice president Phil Lewis is attending the trial, and said his paper debated the merits of challenging public records bills before, some from Brock, but decided not to.
“I wish I had that one to do over,” he said.
Nevertheless Edwards is pursuing the case alone. In addition to both local papers she has gotten support from the Naples Press Club, whose president Carole Greene is also attending the trial, and the Radio Television Digital News Association, the largest professional association of electronic journalists.
Edwards’ supporters say such fees dissuade journalists and private individuals from seeking public records. Especially in the age of citizen journalists and smaller news outlets, they say, they create a barrier to public knowledge.
Blount said that when things are looked at out of context mistakes are made. That, he said, is what happened with Hardt’s initial order. The charge is not for the copies themselves, he said, but for the time and effort spent making the copies
Blount said Brock’s office tried to accommodate Edwards, but was required by state statute to charge $1 a page for documents that were printed, scanned and then copied.
“That’s the way we treat everyone,” he said.
Hardt, however, questioned witnesses himself on why 350 pages of emails had to be printed, scanned and then stored on a disc when they could have been simply transferred to a disc.
Hardt denied Blount’s motion for a directed verdict in Brock’s favor and another motion asking him to reject Edwards’ demand for attorney fees. Witmer claims she’s entitled to the fees because Brock’s unlawful fee kept her from seeing the requested records until after she filed suit.
Hardt said the entire issue of the case is whether the fee was appropriate.
“If the fee is not appropriate then the plaintiff had no recourse but to initiate this action,” he said.
Court is in session at 9 a.m. Wednesday.