TCPlam by Tyler Treadway
April 13, 2018
Who’s harassing whom?
Is a group of Treasure Coast residents harassing the South Florida Water Management District with a barrage of public records requests? Or is the district harassing those residents with threats to subpoena their personal records, including emails, letters and memos.
“I was like, ‘Whaaaaaaat?’ ” said Paul Laura, a Stuart resident and chairman of the Treasure Coast Democratic Environmental Caucus (https://www.facebook.com/Treasure-Coast-Democratic-Environmental-Caucus-Florida985460078252561/), recalling when he learned he was one of nearly 20 area residents the district had threatened with subpoenas. The residents had requested public records from several closed-door meetings the water district board had with its lawyers about Lake Point Restoration suing the district.
The residents’ public records requests were similar to those filed earlier by the Everglades Law Center and former Martin County Commissioner Maggy Hurchalla. The district eventually gave all parties the records from all but one meeting — the pivotal Aug. 23 meeting when the board decided to settle Lake Point’s lawsuit out of court.
District files suit
Rather than approve or deny requests for the Aug. 23 meeting records, the district sued the law center and Hurchalla.
That’s unusual and disturbing, said Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee. “The way it’s supposed to work is: Someone makes a records request and the water management district has to say yes or no,” Petersen said. “If they say no, they have to say, ‘Here’s why.’ Then it’s up to the person who made the request to decide if they want to pursue the matter in court or not.”
For the district to be “fighting so hard to keep from releasing records of that meeting,” said Hurchalla’s attorney, Virginia “Ginny” Sherlock, “there must be something in the discussion that they don’t want us to know.”
District spokesman Randy Smith would not comment or answer TCPalm’s questions about the issue, nor would Executive Director Ernie Marks, according to Smith.
On March 20, Martin County Circuit Court Judge William L. Roby ruled in the district’s favor, saying the Aug. 23 meeting records are exempt from disclosure. The law center plans to appeal, said attorney Marcy La Hart.
“For citizens not to get to know what happened at a meeting where the district board committed to spending taxpayer money is patently ridiculous,” La Hart said.
Despite the court ruling, the district sought the residents’ personal records because the spate of “suspiciously identical” requests suggested an “orchestrated campaign” to harass the district, attorney Tracy M. White stated in a March 30 court filing.
Open government advocates such as Petersen say the district has an obligation to provide public records without asking for people’s affiliations or motivations. The subpoena threat was meant to “intimidate people, to say, ‘We’re going to stomp you.’ It is just flat-out wrong for a government agency to do that to citizens for pursuing their constitutional right,” Petersen said, calling the district’s actions “unconscionable.”
“For the water management district to be using its deep pockets of tax dollars to sue a small nonprofit just because they made a public records request,” she said, “it burns me up, frankly.”
‘As a group’
Seven of the residents’ requests were filed by environmental caucus members, Laura said. They agreed to seek the public records “as a group,” he said, figuring multiple requests would “have more credence” than a single one. “There was no big conspiracy,” Laura said. “We had no contact with Maggy Hurchalla and didn’t even know the Everglades Law Center existed until we saw the name on court records. Our group follows environmental issues pretty closely, and we just wanted to know why the water district decided to settle with Lake Point.”
A Dec. 19 post on the caucus’ Facebook page asked “everyone” to submit public records requests to the district for closed-door meeting transcripts. The post included a template for the request and instructions not to mention their “organizational affiliation.”
That could be why non-caucus members “wound up” filing similar requests, Laura said.
A Jan. 14 post included this update from Sherlock, Hurchalla’s attorney: “Yeah, we got all the documents, all of the shade meeting transcripts except the last one where the final settlement agreement was discussed.”
Giving “interested citizens an update on a case isn’t an ‘orchestrated campaign,’ ” Sherlock said this week. “I’m not telling anyone what to do,” she said. “The law doesn’t say you can’t make a concerted effort on public records requests. It says you can’t do it for improper purposes. And there was no improper purpose here.”
So far, the district’s pursuit of personal information from caucus members and others who requested public records has been stymied by objections from Sherlock and La Hart.
“If the judge says the district can subpoena us, we’ll comply,” Laura said. “We’ve got nothing to hide. But why the district would waste all this time and money on this is much ado about nothing.”
Lake Point contract
The dispute stems from a 2008 contract in which the district agreed to let Lake Point mine rock for 20 years on part of 2,000 acres it owns in western Martin County. After that, the state would turn the mining pits into a reservoir to cut environmentally harmful flows of Lake Okeechobee water to the St. Lucie River. As part of the deal, Martin County would get some of the land for a park.
The deal stalled after Martin County and Lake Point fought over permits for the site. Lake Point sued, claiming the district and the county broke their agreements. Part of the water district board’s settlement at the Aug. 23 meeting gave Lake Point the right to mine rock for 50 years before turning over its land to the state. The district also agreed to buy 50,000 tons of rubble a year for 15 years from the company.