By Steve Plunkett
Is the town’s barrel of litigation half-empty or half-full?
Resident Chris O’Hare, who inundated Gulf Stream with expansive requests for public records, then sued the town when it did not quickly respond, in mid-June notified judges he was withdrawing the lawsuits he had filed.
O’Hare’s lawyer filed the motions the same way O’Hare asked for public records — in batches, three on one day, six on another, 15 on another.
The filings came after O’Hare and Gulf Stream agreed June 9 to settle all legal differences.
“This was a total attack on any government as we know it, any legal system as we know it,” said Robert Sweetapple, Gulf Stream’s outside lawyer.
The lingering question is when — and whether — resident Martin O’Boyle and the town will settle similar cases he filed; O’Boyle and Gulf Stream have at least 10 actions pending.
Mayor Scott Morgan, who ran for office promising to mount an aggressive defense against O’Hare’s and O’Boyle’s lawsuits, was elated with the settlement.
“This essentially brings to a conclusion nearly four years of public records abuse and litigation from Mr. O’Hare. It is a testament to the determination of this town not to voluntarily pay out in response to extortion demands,” Morgan said.
O’Hare said he worked closely with Morgan and others over several weeks and together reached “a balanced and equitable settlement.”
“The town is a much different place now than it was when this all started,” O’Hare said. “The town’s new, once nonexistent Records Department is first-rate and the new town manager and police chief are a welcome change.”
If O’Boyle agrees to settle, the mayor said he would call a special meeting of the Town Commission to endorse the document.
In all, the release O’Hare and the town signed calls for the dismissal of 36 lawsuits and appeals O’Hare filed and the withdrawal of all requests for public records.
Neither side will pay the other’s legal expenses. There is a clause preventing O’Hare from winning legal fees in future disputes.
“What that would do would be to de-incentivize any further litigation over public records. There would be no fee entitlement based on this waiver,” Sweetapple said.
The settlement also requires O’Hare to pay a $250 “facilitation fee” if he ever decides to make another public records request. Failure to pay the fee “will conclusively render such public records request withdrawn,” the release says.
The O’Hare and O’Boyle saga has included demands for hundreds of documents and caused Gulf Stream to hire extra workers, upgrade its computer software and raise property taxes 40 percent.
Gulf Stream maintained that O’Hare filed wide-ranging requests in hopes that the town could not timely respond and thus run afoul of the state’s public records law. In one case last month, Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Thomas Barkdull III found that O’Hare “intended to harass and intimidate the town’s employees to generate litigation and fees with ‘gotcha’ type requests.”
O’Hare began asking Gulf Stream for public records in 2013. From late August through December that year, he made more than 400 requests, Sweetapple said. Together, he and O’Boyle have filed more than 2,000 requests and dozens of lawsuits.
In comparison Boca Raton, with more than 100 times the population of Gulf Stream, handled 2,263 requests for public records in 2016.
An example of the cases being dismissed is one in which O’Hare on Sept. 29, 2013, asked for “Any photos of the Gulf Stream property of Anthony Pugliese in the town’s public record.” The town said it would review his request “within the next three business days” and “will promptly send you the appropriate response or an estimated cost to respond.”
O’Hare filed suit 66 days after making his request. Pugliese, a developer, lives in an oceanfront mansion valued at more than $30 million. The property appraiser’s office labels the address a “confidential record.”