Over opposition from media groups and citizen activists, a Florida Senate panel Tuesday approved new limits on public records requests that stem from the town of Gulf Stream’s costly clash with millionaire resident Martin O’Boyle.
The legislation (SB 1220) would let judges decide whether to award attorney fees in lawsuits seeking public records. The law now requires judges to order a government to pay court costs and attorney fees if they find the government unlawfully refused access to a public record.
Governments argue that a “cottage industry” of lawyers has emerged built around filing records requests and then suing when they’re not fulfilled quickly.
Cities and counties tend to settle, steering thousands of dollars to these law firms rather than engage in a lengthy courtroom fight.
“This is a very real problem in this state,” said Casey Cook, with the Florida League of Cities.
But open government advocates say the legislation will severely damage Florida’s public records law. Few attorneys would be willing to represent the public or news organizations in a public records challenge if there was a chance they couldn’t recoup fees.
“It punishes all of us because of the bad actions of a few,” said Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, a media-financed non-profit, whose supporters include The Palm Beach Post.
But Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, said he was confident the bill retained sufficient safeguards.
Under the measure, a lawsuit could not be filed until at least five business days lapsed from the time the records were sought. And a judge could still award attorneys’ fees if a request was ignored or stalled.
“All this does is stop the abuse of some lawyers,” Hays said.
The Senate Governmental Oversight and Accountability Committee voted 3-0 to approve the legislation after heated testimony from both sides. Among those calling for the bill was Robert Ganger, vice mayor of Gulf Stream, which has endured a long siege by O’Boyle, a town resident.
Ganger said the small beachfront town in southern Palm Beach County has been hit with 2,500 records requests and 46 lawsuits over the past two years. Gulf Stream’s four town employees, who handle the requests, have been overwhelmed, he said.
According to a report last year by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, those lawsuits are among more than 100 public-records lawsuits filed in 27 counties by the Citizens Awareness Foundation and an allied group, Our Public Records LLC.
Citizens Awareness was founded by Martin O’Boyle and, according to Department of State records, he is listed as manager of Our Public Records LLC. The O’Boyle Law Firm in Deerfield Beach also has prepared most of the suits. It is headed by Jonathan O’Boyle, son of Martin O’Boyle.
Jonathan O’Boyle has told The Post that he supports an overhaul of the state’s public records system to improve transparency and speed.
But on Tuesday he called the legislation “baloney.”
“This will limit access for a lot of people,” O’Boyle told The Post after the committee hearing. “There are a number of other changes that could be made that could improve public access. But this is aimed at helping governments keep public records away from people.”
In an unsuccessful class-action lawsuit filed last year in federal court, Gulf Stream alleged the O’Boyles and others had engaged in a conspiracy to extort money from municipalities in violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, better known as the RICO act. The suit, claiming the O’Boyles were using public records requests as part of a money-making scheme, was dismissed.
In tossing the suit, a judge said the town would be better off pursuing a claim in state court or lobbying the Legislature to beef up public records laws.
The measure is scheduled for two more committee hearings before going before the full Senate. A similar House bill also is advancing.
Before voting in favor of the bill, Committee Chairman Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, said that he was “torn” by testimony Tuesday.
But Stew Lilker, publisher of the Columbia County Observer, which has battled with an area hospital authority over records, said lawmakers should be more focused on public agencies that stall or overcharge the public when documents are sought.
“The bad actors are not the one or two people in this cottage industry” of lawyers,” Lilker said. “The bad actors are sometimes the public agencies that don’t want to give the people the records.”
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