Even its staunchest defenders admit Florida’s legendary public records law has a loophole. Nobody has to tell the city of Gulf Stream, where scam artists have filed 2,500 phony public records requests and 46 lawsuits over the past two years.
“The fees for lawyers for their small town of 900 people have gone from 35,000 dollars a year to over a million dollars a year, just in attorneys’ fees, to deal with one law firm who keeps inundating them with public records requests.”
That was Republican Representative Greg Steube of Sarasota describing the problem Tuesday to the House Government Oversight Appropriations Subcommittee.
Steube’s proposal to fix the problem is simple. By changing “shall” to “may,” he would give judges a choice about whether to award attorney’s fees to people who sue for public records.
But critics, like AFLCIO Florida lobbyist Rich Templin, calls it a disaster. Every year, open government advocates skirmish with lawmakers over exemptions for specific records. This is much more fundamental, Templin says.
“Each session when you come and you provide more exemption from the sunshine law, more exemption of records, more exemptions of meetings, that cherished institution is being diminished. This legislation is actually a cut to the jugular.”
First Amendment Foundation President Barbara Petersen acknowledges the law is being abused.
“The bad actors on the access side of the aisle, the gotcha guys, do harm to us, to the people who are trying very hard to get access to public records.”
But she says the threat of attorney fees is the only stick a citizen has when he asks a government official to hand over public documents. And that’s the real flaw in public records laws, Petersen says.
“So the citizens in your communities who have bene wrongfully denied access to a public record have no alternative other than filing suit. And we would very much like to see an enforcement mechanism, a middle step, where we go before we go to court.”
Petersen isn’t the only expert advocating change. Keith Rizzardi is a St. Thomas University law professor. Rizzardi handled public records suits when he worked for the South Florida Water Management District.
He supports the bill, and thinks it should go even further. People wouldn’t use the public records law like an ATM if it included a so called “reciprocal attorney fee” provision, Rizzardi says.
Open meetings laws work that way, he says.
“There are provisions in the government in the sunshine law where we say that a person who improperly brings a government in the sunshine case could be exposed to attorneys’ fees and might have to pay attorneys’ fees to the government.”
Representative Charles Van Zant of Palatka seemed to speak for most conservative Republicans on the committee. He’s eager for change. And soon.
“I was just curious what tactic you would use that prevents raping the treasury of our small towns of their hard-fought for tax dollars that are necessary for them to function.”
The bill passed the committee with only a single negative vote.