Two days after the Florida Legislature completed the 2016 session, a Sun Sentinel editorial headlined “Open government under attack,” indirectly referred to a failed bill that attempted to address abuse of the Public Records Act by a cottage industry of scam artists who have conspired to fleece Florida taxpayers of many millions of dollars.
    With some irony, the Florida Press Association had worked with bill sponsors to craft language to assure that only abusers of open government laws were targeted, and not the press or ordinary citizens. Perhaps someone missed the memo.
    The alleged public records “scheme” is virtually foolproof. It starts with the Sunshine Law that grants citizens and the press unfettered access to the inner workings of taxpayer-funded public agencies (municipalities, school boards, law enforcement, etc.) When requested records are not produced in a timely fashion, the requestor has a right to sue the agency. If the court finds that the request was actually denied, attorney fees must be awarded to the plaintiff.  
    Sounds reasonable. Except that hustlers have figured out how to game the system, either by overwhelming the agency with excessive requests, or by rigging the requests in a manner that makes it impossible to comply.
    Quick money is made by threatening or actually filing a lawsuit, then offering a settlement for a fraction of trial costs. The victim is in a lose/lose situation. Most settle, and the taxpayer foots the bill.
    The Florida League of Cities, representing all 410 state municipalities, got wind of the scam several years ago. In establishing  priorities for the 2016 legislative session, confronting abuse of the Public Records Act was the top choice of League policy makers. As a FLOC committee delegate from Gulf Stream, I was in the unenviable position of defining the problem that legislation needed to solve.
    Our tiny town endured 2,500 public records requests in 18 months, overwhelming a four-person administrative staff. Over 40 compliance lawsuits have been filed, some within hours of receipt of the request. Town annual legal costs escalated from $25,000 to $1 million. Almost 5,000 annual staff hours were spent processing records requests.
    Sadly, the Gulf Stream situation was neither unique nor more repulsive than the experience of similar agencies throughout the state. One mayor said, “We are facing an epidemic.”
    Rep. Greg Steube and Sen. Rene Garcia agreed to sponsor public records reform bills. It was a daunting task, involving: the mechanics of crafting bill language; assigning and coordinating six required committee reviews; educating and motivating 160 legislators; appearing at hearings and amending language as needed.
    League lobbyists coordinated the effort, and elected officials throughout the state personally testified in support of conscientious efforts to give courts discretion to withhold attorney fees from frivolous litigants.
    Florida Tax Watch, a respected watchdog whose research on government waste is based upon access to public records, filed a report asking Legislators to support sensible reform.
    The proposed bills passed all committee hearings almost unanimously. During testimony, the most ardent defenders of the Public Records Act acknowledged the damage caused by abusive practice, calling the perpetrators “cockroaches” and “gotcha guys.”
    The Florida Press Association and First Amendment Foundation worked with Garcia to amend bill language to not impose a chilling effect on legitimate exercise of open government rights.  
    Apparently, one influential  member of the House (who is a public records attorney), was not convinced. Rather than put SB 1220 to a vote on the House floor where it was certain to pass, the bill was buried.
    However, the genie is now out of the bottle. We’ll be back in 2017.

Robert W. Ganger
Vice Mayor, Gulf Stream

Robert W.  Ganger is a Florida  League of Cities committee delegate and a longtime Gulf Stream resident and commissioner.

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