By Dan Moffett
A Palm Beach County circuit judge will decide whether Gulf Stream owes resident Martin O’Boyle as much as $500,000 in legal fees after finding against the town in a 2-year-old public records lawsuit.
Judge Donald Hafele ruled on Sept. 6 that the town failed to satisfy the state statute in responding to O’Boyle’s requests for records concerning the town’s removal of his campaign signs during the 2014 municipal election.
The case is one of dozens O’Boyle has filed against Gulf Stream over the last four years, and the disputed public records are among thousands of records requests he has made to the town.
O’Boyle’s lawyer, Elaine Johnson James, says he is entitled to compensation that could amount to $500,000 — a figure that’s roughly 10 percent of the town’s total budget — because the town violated the law, then contested his suit at every turn, running up the legal bills.
“We’re coming after the town for every dime Mr. O’Boyle spent to pursue his claim,” Johnson James said. “What a waste of the taxpayers’ money.”
Mayor Scott Morgan said the town had no choice but to fight it out in court. Morgan said the town’s lawyers tried to settle the suit but O’Boyle wanted “an exorbitant amount,” so the town opted to defend the case and let the court determine compensation.
“This should have been settled, but O’Boyle demanded so much money — a number that was so shockingly high — we decided to let the judge try the case and award attorney fees, rather than accede to O’Boyle’s demands,” Morgan said.
Neither side will disclose specifics from the settlement negotiations. But a source close to the talks said the number $500,000 came up.
The suit grew out of O’Boyle’s unsuccessful run for the Town Commission in March 2014. Town Manager William Thrasher believed several dozen O’Boyle campaign signs were placed illegally on public rights of way and ordered police to remove them. O’Boyle objected and requested public records from the town, including police correspondence.
Morgan, a lawyer, said the town acted in good faith in trying to fulfill O’Boyle’s requests but was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of public records requests he made — “a technical violation” of the records law, he said.
“O’Boyle is looking for a mistake to use for a ‘gotcha case,’ ’’ said Morgan. “We were inundated with requests. We obtained most of the documents but inadvertently didn’t produce two of them.”
The judge’s ruling appeared to turn on O’Boyle’s requests for records of police radio transmissions that are recorded and stored in Delray Beach. Morgan said the town believed they were not Gulf Stream’s records because they “are not generated by us or maintained by us.”
Johnson James doesn’t see it that way, and neither did the judge, during a trial that lasted less than two hours.
“Basically, the town not only failed to turn over the records to Mr. O’Boyle, the town failed to even tell him that the records existed,” she said. “The judge specifically said that the town’s duty to turn over records wasn’t removed because the town had so many public records requests.”
Johnson James said the bill for legal fees would be much lower had the town stopped fighting a losing cause.
“Gulf Stream’s a wealthy town, but wealthy people’s money shouldn’t be wasted either,” she said, and left a question: “Why do we keep doing these dumb things that are contrary to the law?”
Morgan said he expects Hafele to decide on the legal costs before the end of the year. The mayor said he believes Gulf Stream will end up spending less than if it had accepted O’Boyle’s “outrageous” settlement terms.
“When we do something wrong or feel we’re going to lose a case, we try to settle,” Morgan said. “But we couldn’t accede to O’Boyle’s exorbitant demand. I’m willing to let the court decide.”
In another case, a Palm Beach County Circuit Court judge ruled in September that the Town of Gulf Stream violated the state’s public records law in handling a request from resident Christopher O’Hare in 2014.
O’Hare sued the town after claiming officials refused to turn over records of car wash services during a three-year period. The town withheld the records, saying it needed an advance deposit of $792.54 from O’Hare to cover the clerical costs of producing the documents.
In her ruling against the town, Judge Cheryl Caracuzzo wrote that the state law “is to be liberally construed in favor of open access to public records,” and officials should have given O’Hare the documents. Caracuzzo said she would allow O’Hare to seek court costs and attorney’s fees.
By Dan Moffett