We owe a debt of gratitude to a spunky little dog and her tenacious owner.
If it wasn’t for Delila, a white Jack Russell terrier-springer spaniel mix, the Fifth District Court of Appeal would not have issued an opinion last week that was a victory for access to public records.
It all started one spring evening in 2010 when Delila’s owner, Susan Hewlings, left the garage door open at her southeast Orange County home.
Delila got out and bit another dog walking by the house.
Hewlings says she grabbed her dog and put it in the house. Then she took her neighbor and the injured dog to the vet and paid for the treatment.
“I was horrified,” Hewlings said of her typically sweet dog’s behavior.
Things got worse.
Later that night there was a knock on the door from Orange County Animal Services.
Hewlings says the animal control officer wanted to take the dog and her two black labs and threatened to send her to jail.
Hewlings, who runs a dog rescue, refused to give up the animals. The police were called. Hewlings kept her dogs that night, but was issued a ticket for failing to keep the small dog on a leash.
Sadly for Hewlings — and the taxpayers who have to pay the county’s legal bills — that wasn’t the end of it.
Orange County continued trying to seize Hewlings’ dogs.
In response, Hewlings did something that should have been easy. She asked Orange County for all public records related to the investigation of her dog. She said she was willing to pay any costs involved.
Orange County dragged its feet.
After weeks of waiting, Hewlings went to court, and a judge ordered the county to hand over the records. Fifty days after her original request, Hewlings received some of the records.
But that wasn’t the end of it.
Hewlings wanted Orange County to pay her attorney fees. The county refused.
Hewlings eventually won attorney fees after a trial judge found the county unreasonably delayed a response to her public records request. The county continued to fight the fees.
And that’s what led up to last week’s appeals court opinion.
The court noted that the county’s actions flouted Florida’s public records laws by forcing four years of hearings, depositions, trials, mediations and two appeals.
“To say that Appellant [Orange County] has turned a molehill into a mountain is an understatement,” the court wrote.
As legal opinions go, this one’s a page-turner.
So weak were the county’s arguments that the judges facetiously pondered whether a county attorney slept through the proceeding. They called the county’s actions “obstinate” and “lackadaisical.”
Your tax dollars at work.
Orange County spent four years fighting what started off as a bill of a few thousand dollars.
Now it’s significantly more.
The latest opinion even issued sanctions — additional fees — against Orange County because it found the appeal of attorney’s fees “frivolous and abusive.”
This proceeding didn’t get the attention of “textgate,” the case in which Orange County commissioners deleted or lost text messages that were clearly public records.
But it’s just as important.
Too often, people look at public records laws as only benefiting the media. Hewlings’ case shows why the law is important for individual citizens as well.
“In this kind of situation the individual citizen can’t always fight this fight,” said Michael Kest, the attorney representing Hewlings. “It’s like going up against a huge corporation because they have unlimited resources.”
Except the county’s resources are our tax dollars.
Now Hewlings and the county will have to go through yet another hearing to determine the extent of the fees because the county hasn’t attempted to settle on an amount.
“That’s more taxpayer money down the drain,” Kest said.
County Attorney Jeff Newton and Edward Chew, the attorney who represented the county in Hewlings’ case, said the county has already reformed the way it handles public records requests before the court opinion.
To read the opinion, click on the following – Hewlings – Second Opinion