By Dan Moffett
Gulf Stream may be the only municipality in South Florida where residents don’t have to guess what’s going on inside Town Hall.
On any given day, it’s a safe bet that the town’s employees are working on public records requests — because that has become most of what they do, according to a town report produced as part of a new public records policy adopted last year.
During the fiscal year that ended in September, Gulf Stream fielded 428 new requests for town records, nearly all of them from residents Martin O’Boyle and Chris O’Hare. Between them, the two men have filed dozens of lawsuits against the town and made several thousand requests for records since 2013.
To comply with the requests, Kelly Avery, a full-time employee, worked 1,742 hours last year, roughly 95 percent of the time she put in. Carol Mahoney, a temporary worker the town hired to handle requests from O’Boyle and O’Hare, worked 2,080 hours.
“Out of an office of five employees,” said Mayor Scott Morgan, “two devoted almost all their time to public records requests.”
All told, counting work done also by the Town Clerk Rita Taylor, accountant Rebecca Tew, Police Chief Garrett Ward and Town Manager William Thrasher, Gulf Stream devoted 4,913 hours — roughly the equivalent of 2.5 full-time positions — to records requests.
“Appalling,” said Vice Mayor Robert Ganger.
The report doesn’t capture all the stress on the staff, officials say, or extra time on the job. Taylor, who is not an hourly employee, has been working seven days a week for the last two years.
O’Boyle and O’Hare have 40 suits pending against the town alleging noncompliance with their records requests, besides at least nine more cases over other matters. The two have complained that officials have violated the state’s Sunshine Law by withholding information, failing to comply promptly or overcharging for copying documents.
“The town has acted lawfully in all of the cases,” Morgan said in a recent letter to all residents. “However, under current Florida public records law, we cannot collect reasonable legal fees from the plaintiffs, even when we win. Thus, we must win these cases — just to put an end to them. Paying money to these litigants only validates their outrageous behavior and encourages them and others to pursue similar methods of public records abuse.”
On Oct. 8, lawyers for the town filed an appeal of their RICO class action against O’Boyle and O’Hare that alleges the two conspired to use public records requests to extort money from municipalities and businesses across the state. In June, U.S. District Court Judge Kenneth Marra threw out the suit, ruling that the complaint did not meet legal requirements for action under the federal Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act.
O’Boyle told the commission in September that the $1 million the town is budgeting for legal fees is “absurd, outrageous, beyond the pale.” He said he wanted to negotiate an end to the cases, and proposed forming a panel made up of town officials and residents to broker a deal.
“The way we resolve it is we slug it out, somebody dies, somebody goes broke, or we sit down and negotiate a settlement,” O’Boyle said.
O’Hare told commissioners the RICO suit is hurting his business — Pineapple Grove Designs, which makes cast stone architectural art. He said it will cost the town millions more in legal fees unless officials admit their mistakes and negotiate.
“Every time you make a mistake that affects me, I’m going to go to a judge and adjudicate it,” O’Hare said.
Morgan said the men should put their settlement proposals in writing and give them to the town’s lawyers. He said the town is open to negotiation.
“The ball is in the litigants’ court,” Morgan said. “I have stated numerous times that if the litigants will discontinue their lawsuits, I will recommend discontinuing our RICO action.”
By Dan Moffett