A Senate committee is considering a bill that would gut Florida’s public records law by making it more difficult for citizens who have been denied access to records to sue public agencies.
“Senate Bill 80 goes before the Governmental Oversight and Accountability Committee at 10 a.m. Tuesday in Room 401 of the Senate Office Building. If you care about open government, let the committee members know they need to scrap this one.”
Tallahassee Democrat Editorial, February 5, 2017
When governments illegally withhold records, filing suit is a citizen’s only recourse. Now in Florida, when a citizen sues and wins, the public agency at fault must cover the citizen’s attorney’s fees. That would change under Senate Bill 80, sponsored by Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota.
The bill would amend Florida’s public records law by giving judges discretion in determining whether to award fees, which would further stack the deck against citizens who already face significant challenges when their access to records is denied.
Average citizens without deep pockets can’t afford to gamble on whether a judge would award costly legal fees. Fighting government can amount to thousands of dollars, and attorneys will be less likely to take such cases unless they are sure of payment.
“In our view, this legislation would eviscerate the public records law by giving governments free rein to withhold public information in violation of the law,” Barbara A. Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, said in a statement Friday.
Florida’s open records and meetings laws have long been regarded as some of the strongest in the country, but with no enforcement mechanism, we must ensure citizens’ ability to seek relief through the courts. This proposed amendment would have a chilling effect by making it more difficult for citizens to exercise the only option available to them.
The enforcement provisions of the law are weak already. In 2009, the Commission on Open Government Reform pointed out that neither the open meetings nor public records law address agencies that willfully or repeatedly disregard citizens’ rights.
The commission recommended that the Legislature allow for the assessment of additional fees if a court determines intentional disregard or a pattern of violations and that such fees be used to enhance access to public meetings and records.
SB 80 is one of 19 already filed for 2017 that would limit open government, according to the First Amendment Foundation. Lawmakers considered a similar amendment last year, pushed by the Florida League of Cities. The League’s legislative priority statements allude to the provision again this year: “The Florida League of Cities SUPPORTS public records reform to discourage or eliminate schemes designed to generate violations of public records laws and disrupt agency operations.”
The League and other supporters of this bill are willing to erode the rights of all citizens to combat the actions of a few. There are other options, starting with training and education. Public servants who are knowledgeable about open government laws are less likely to violate them or fall prey to “schemes.”
This year’s proposed amendment also comes after a ruling in 2016 by the Florida Supreme Court that affirmed public agencies’ responsibility for paying attorney’s fees if they violate the open records law.
Senate Bill 80 goes before the Governmental Oversight and Accountability Committee at 10 a.m. Tuesday in Room 401 of the Senate Office Building. If you care about open government, let the committee members know they need to scrap this one. [READ MORE]