September 9, 2016 – Daytona Beach News-Journal
by Jennifer Edwards-Park
The Florida Commission on Ethics agreed unanimously Friday to let a judge decide whether Flagler County should be allowed to recoup legal fees and costs stemming from five cases involving ethics complaints filed against county officials.
All five of the complaints were later dismissed and represent a handful of among 26 ethics complaints filed against Flagler County commissioners and county officials since November 2014. All but three were later dismissed.
Friday’s decision to grant an administrative hearing is the latest development in an ongoing debate over whether Flagler officials are seeking to retaliate against residents who filed complaints that were later dismissed by requesting thousands of dollars in attorneys’ fees.
It’s a move some say could discourage citizens from filing complaints, while Flagler officials argue officials should be able to recoup taxpayer funds if complaints are filed solely to damage reputations or out of malice.
“The fact that the complaints were dismissed doesn’t mean that the complaints don’t have merit,” Barbara Petersen, president of the Florida First Amendment Foundation, said by phone Friday.
She said part of the problem is that there isn’t a specific legal body that hears or enforces complaints regarding open records laws, leaving residents to either take the expensive step of suing in civil court or seeking redress from agencies that may not be appropriate for the complaint.
“Now, if the commissioners are going after the citizens who are filing the complaints, this will have a huge chilling effect,” she said. “This will be in the paper tomorrow, the lady down the street is going to read it and say why would I take that risk even if they are violating the law?
“What they’re saying is ‘shut up, stay in your house and don’t complain,'” Petersen said. [READ MORE]