By Dan Moffett
In waging their legal wars against the town of Gulf Stream, residents Chris O’Hare and Martin O’Boyle have used Florida’s public records laws hundreds of times in the last 18 months to challenge how their community is governed.
As of mid-August, the town had responded to 1,252 public record requests filed in roughly equal numbers by O’Hare and O’Boyle, according to Town Clerk Rita Taylor.
The requests touch most every imaginable tangent of the disputes O’Hare and O’Boyle have had with the town: fights over the architecture of home entrances and roofs, election rules, Americans With Disabilities Act compliance, parking regulation, constitutional protections and general governmental procedures.
The two have sought documents, emails, phone texts, receipts, expense vouchers, transcripts and recordings. Between them, O’Hare and O’Boyle have filed dozens of suits and complaints against the town in the circuit and federal courts during the last two years.
Taylor, 83, said she has been working seven days a week since last year and her assistant works Saturday mornings.
The town also has added a full-time temporary office worker, solely to help satisfy the requests.
“Even with the extra temporary worker,” Taylor said, “a lot of our other work is undone because we’re working on public records.”
Since mid-2013, Taylor says the clerk’s office has logged 4,650 hours handling the public records requests from O’Hare and O’Boyle. She says the office currently is logging about 145 hours per week, or 72 percent of its total work time, dealing with the requests.
Gulf Stream spent about $360,000 in legal fees during the last fiscal year to fight the lawsuits of O’Hare and O’Boyle, and the related clerical work at Town Hall has cost at least another $100,000, officials say.
In recent months, the town has added a folder on its website just to keep track of public records requests and make them accessible to the public.
O’Boyle and O’Hare accuse town officials of creating their own problems. O’Boyle blames the town for being unwilling to negotiate and choosing a “legal slugfest” over a settlement.
“If you really want to get the legal fees under control,” O’Boyle told Mayor Scott Morgan during the July Town Commission meeting, “you have to really want to get the legal fees under control.”
O’Hare has accused the town of violating the very public records laws it claims to be upholding.
“If you tell your staff to follow the law,” O’Hare told town commissioners during the same meeting, “all this stuff would go away and go back to normal.”
The town has installed a $3,500 video security system at Town Hall after an incident on July 24, when O’Boyle and two associates entered the clerk’s office and asked for records during a meeting of the architectural review board, officials said.
The new system allows staff to use a video monitor to identify people at the door, talk to them through an intercom and then release the lock electronically — or not.
In other business: The Aug. 8 Town Commission meeting was canceled because of a lack of a quorum. Commissioner Donna White was ill, and Morgan and Commissioner Joan Orthwein were on vacation.