Florida League Of Cities Wants Public Records Reform

Nov 30, 2015

Florida's League of Cities lobbies to protect local authority.
Credit Steven Adams via Flickr

Florida’s League of Cities has a full slate of pet projects for the coming session.  The issues center on defending local governing authority, but the League is also backing a controversial public records exemption.

The Florida League of Cities lobbies on behalf of more than four hundred local governments.  Its primary focus is retaining local control over policy—or home rule, and that means advocating for a sometimes dizzying array of issues. 

For instance, Rebecca O’Hara says the League objects to a set of fracking bills but on zoning rather than environmental grounds.  Lawmakers are again trying to pre-empt local fracking bans.

“So what we’d like to do is try to clarify that preemption to assure—insure—that we maintain the authority to apply our land development regulations and our zoning codes to these activities,” O’Hara says.

Meanwhile, the governor’s budget is aiming to restrict impact fees for certain small businesses.  It’s a requirement making new entrants pony up for the increased burden they place on a city’s infrastructure.  League attorney David Cruz says local governments should retain control of the fees.

“We feel that impact fees are again a very important growth management tool,” Cruz says and he notes, “Cities currently have the ability to waive impact fees if they go ahead and analyze their infrastructure needs and they realize that they have abundant infrastructure to support new development.”

And the list goes on—from taxes on cable and phone service to how to classify and regulate vacation rentals. 

But the most controversial cause the league is backing could have to do with public records requests.  Florida’s existing provisions are broad, and lobbyist Casey Cook says some are abusing the system. 

“Their intent isn’t to get information,” Cook says, “instead it’s hoping that the public agency doesn’t comply fully with the request.”

According to Cook, the requestor then files a public records lawsuit and offers to settle out of court. 

Currently two bills in the coming session aim at greater protection from these challenges for contractors working with public agencies, but there’s nothing to protect the agencies themselves. 

Cook expects that legislation will be filed soon.

“From our perspective I think we’d like to see two things,” he says.  “First, currently judges are required—it says ‘shall’ in statute—to award attorney’s fees in public records cases.  We’d like to see that changed to a ‘may,’ and give the judge some discretion in whether or not to award attorney’s fees.  The second is a five day notice of intent to sue.”

The League says 55 cities and counties have been drawn into public records lawsuits recently as well as several sheriff’s offices and school boards.