The annual assault on Florida’s public records law begins anew today in the Legislature. A bill that would make it more difficult to collect legal fees from public agencies that illegally withhold records is a serious threat to open government and should be rejected at its first committee stop. Lawmakers should defeat this cynical attempt to weaken the only means citizens have of forcing government to give them the documents they are entitled to examine.
by the Tampa Bay Times’ Editorial Board
February 6, 2017
The Florida League of Cities continues to complain of isolated examples where local governments feel overwhelmed by public records lawsuits they contend are motivated by generating legal fees rather than concern about the public’s business. Indeed, there are reports of some abuses by a very small handful of bad actors. But Steube’s bill takes a sledgehammer to the public records law and would have a chilling effect on the right of all citizens to access public records.
There are better ways to address any abuses. First, the courts and the Florida Bar have the ability take action. A Jacksonville circuit judge ruled against the plaintiff in a public records lawsuit in 2015 and noted he had 17 pending public records lawsuits in Duval County and received money whenever they were settled. That situation, the judge wrote, was probably “an improper fee-splitting arrangement” with a lawyer, and last month a Florida Bar committee found probable cause that the lawyer in that case committed an ethics violation.
Second, a compromise bill agreed to by the Florida League of Cities and filed again this year is better than Steube’s approach. The compromise, which passed the Senate last year and died in the House, requires agencies that violate the public records law to pay the plaintiff’s attorney fees unless the court finds the records request “was made primarily to harass the agency or cause a violation of this chapter.”
The Senate Governmental Oversight and Accountability Committee that will consider Steube’s bill today includes two Tampa Bay senators: Bill Galvano, R-Sarasota, and Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg. They should help kill this attack on the constitutional right to public records before it goes any further. [READ MORE]