By Dan Moffett
An important compromise in the Legislature appears to have allayed opposition to a controversial bill aimed at stopping people who exploit the state’s public records laws to shake down government entities for money.
Under changes to the proposed legislation worked out in mid-February, judges still would be required to grant attorney fees to plaintiffs in lawsuits when governments are found to have violated public records laws. However, judges also would be allowed the discretion to deny the attorney fees if the court finds a suit was intended to harass, intimidate or mislead government officials into violating the law.
In other words, people who act in bad faith when making public records cases shouldn’t expect to win court costs and fees.
The proposed legislation, SB 1220 sponsored by Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, comes in response to the legal wars in the town of Gulf Stream, where residents Martin O’Boyle and Chris O’Hare have filed some 2,000 requests for public records and 40 lawsuits against the government during the last two years.
Vice Mayor Robert Ganger testified before a legislative committee in January and told lawmakers Gulf Stream needed relief from the onslaught of requests and suits that is breaking the town’s budget.
“The court today has no discretion and because we technically didn’t comply, they awarded legal fees,” Ganger said. “It’s killing us.”
Robert Sweetapple, a Boca Raton attorney hired by the town, in court documents has accused O’Boyle and O’Hare of “a concerted pattern of abusive conduct directed at a local government,” a charge the two men deny.
Sweetapple says Gulf Stream’s plight is an ominous example of what could happen to other governments and public agencies anywhere in Florida.
“Give me 10 lawyers and 10 word processors and I can shut down the entire state,” he said of the potential damage from public records abusers.
An earlier version of SB 1220 removed the requirement that judges award attorney fees to prevailing plaintiffs, leaving it up the judge’s discretion in each case. The amended version allows the judge to grant fees and court costs if the judge finds the government or agency violated the law, and the plaintiff acted in good faith and gave five days’ notice before suing.
Garcia said he approved the changes to his bill “to address concerns that the language will cut off access to public records.” Open government advocates argued that citizens with legitimate complaints would be reluctant to take on governments if they knew they would have to pay lawyers out of their own pockets.
The Florida League of Cities has supported Gulf Stream and Garcia’s bill. The First Amendment Foundation and its president, Barbara Petersen, opposed the first version, arguing that it went too far in trying to rein in a “small group of people, particularly when compared to the vast majority of citizens who simply want access to the public records they seek.”
Petersen had proposed creating a public officer to referee public records disputes between citizens and governments before lawsuits get filed, but lawmakers didn’t embrace the idea.
Both the League of Cities and the First Amendment Foundation have expressed support for the bill’s revised version, which could come to a vote before the legislative session is scheduled to end March 11.
By Dan Moffett