Florida Sunshine Coalition

Another Attempt To Weaken Access To Public Records

In  what  appears  to  be  an  effort  to  substantially  weaken  Florida’s  public  records  law  and  make  it  more   difficult  for  citizens  to  gain  access  to  public  records,  Representative  Greg  Steube  has  introduced  HB  1021   and  Senator  Rene  Garcia  has  introduced  SB  1220.    These  bills  will  amend  Florida  Statute  §119.12  to   make  the  award  of  attorney’s  fees  discretionary  even  when  a  judge  has  made  a  finding  that  a  public   agency  has  wrongfully  withheld  public  records  from  inspection.

The  Florida  Public  Records  Law  was  created  in  1909  to  guarantee  a  citizen’s  right  to  open  government.     The  law  states  that  “it  is  the  policy  of  this  state  that  all  state,  county,  and  municipal  records  shall  at  all   times  be  open  for  a  personal  inspection  by  any  person.”    When  the  government  refuses  to  comply,  a   citizen’s  only  recourse  is  to  go  to  court.    The  law  currently  provides  for  a  citizen’s  legal  fees  to  be  paid   for  by  the  government  entity  if  it  is  found  non-­‐compliant.    The  attorney  fee  provision  creates  a  level   playing  field  for  someone  who  can  afford  to  pay  for  an  attorney  and  those  who  cannot.

With  a  simple  change  of  one  word,  “shall”  to  “may,”  the  public  will  no  longer  be  guaranteed  fair  access   to  what  is  rightfully  theirs.    Let  us  be  clear:  if  this  change  is  made  a  judge  may  not  award  a  citizen   attorney’s  fees  even  if  the  judge  finds  in  favor  of  the  citizen.

Public  records  laws  are  there  to  maintain  a  meaningful  right  of  government  oversight  and   accountability;  access  laws  reduce  the  opportunity  for  abuse  -­‐  all  the  while  keeping  public  servants   honest.    Without  a  penalty  provision  when  the  government  is  wrong,  there  is  no  incentive  to  be   transparent  and  provide  citizens  with  access  to  information  about  governmental  decision-­‐making.    The   result  will  be  fewer  challenges  brought  by  citizens,  which  will  certainly  result  in  less  government   transparency.

This  proposed  change  in  the  law  is  a  one-­‐way  street  against  citizens’  taxpayers.  What  the  law  continues   to  allow  is  for  the  payment  of  legal  fees  of  elected  officials  by  taxpayers.    As  we  saw  in  several  recent   lawsuits  against  Governor  Scott,  over  half  a  million  dollars  was  paid  in  his  defense  in  just  one  case  that   alleged  he  and  several  members  of  his  staff  violated  state  law  when  they  created  email  accounts  to  hide   their  communications  from  the  public.
Rather  than  reforming  the  public  records  law—  a  specious  claim  made  by  the  Florida  League  of  Cities  —   these  bills  will  essentially  gut  our  right  of  access  to  government  records.    Who  can  afford  to  sue   government  for  a  violation  of  that  right  if  not  guaranteed  attorney’s  fees  if  successful?    True  reform  —  if   that’s  what  the  bill  sponsors  and  the  League  really  want  —  is  simple:    create  a  mechanism  for  the   enforcement  of  this  critically  important  right,  a  middle  step  that  can  negate  the  need  to  litigate  every   violation,  perceived  or  real,  in  civil  court.

HB  1021  is  sailed through by  the  House  Government  Operations  Subcommittee.  The companion to HB 1021, SB 1220, is scheduled for consideration by the S. Governmental Oversight and Accountability Committee on Tuesday, January 26, at 9:00 AM in room 401, SOB.