Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Watchdogs Fear Effect of Public Records Proposal; Bills in the Legislature Would Put Attorneys Fees in Judges' Hands for Lawsuits

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Watchdogs Fear Effect of Public Records Proposal; Bills in the Legislature Would Put Attorneys Fees in Judges' Hands for Lawsuits

Article excerpt

Byline: David Bauerlein

The Government-in-the-Sunshine Law has made Curt Lee and Bob Dees a force to be reckoned with as government watchdogs.

Lee, a Jacksonville resident, peppers government agencies with public records requests, and when he believes agencies are failing to respond, he has found a courtroom ally in Dees, a Jacksonville attorney.

So they are closely watching bills now working their way through the Legislature that would change how state law determines attorney fees in cases when government unlawfully withholds public records.

"The effect on it would be devastating to people like Curt," Dees said.

The impact of the bills (SB 1220 and its House companion, HB 1021) also set off alarm bells at the Jacksonville Ethics Commission, which approved a resolution this week opposing the legislation. The commission wants lawmakers to go back to the drawing board for a more narrowly tailored way to crack down on the small number of people who abuse the law.

The legislation is "like killing a fly with a sledgehammer," city Ethics Officer Carla Miller said Tuesday.

But the bills are picking up backers in Tallahassee. The House Government Operations Subcommittee approved the House version on Tuesday. The Senate's Committee on Governmental Oversight and Accountability supported the Senate measure last week.

The measure would give judges authority on a case-by-case basis to determine whether they will award attorney fees in lawsuits where the government unlawfully refuses to provide a public record.

Even if a violation occurred, the judge could refuse to award attorney fees if he determines the request for a public record was frivolous or made in bad faith.

Right now, state law says judges must order the government to pay attorney fees for the resident or organization that brought the lawsuit - a requirement that makes it easier for attorneys to take public-records cases because they know they'll get paid for legitimate cases.

'NOTHING MORE THAN A SCAM'

Sen. Rene Garcia, a bill sponsor, said the change is aimed at cracking down on a "cottage industry" of cases in which people are seeking public records solely so they can file lawsuits and collect a "quick and easy profit" through attorney fees. Garcia said judges would still be able to award attorney fees in cases where people legitimately seek records.

"We're not eliminating penalties for governments that want to keep the public in the dark," he said.

Supporters of the bill include the South Florida town of Gulf Stream, which has been hit with 2,500 public record requests and more than 40 lawsuits over the past two years, forcing an increase in the property tax rate to handle all the requests, the city's vice mayor testified last week to a Senate committee. …

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