Steube Seeks Records Law Reform

Politics

BY JACOB OGLES SRQ DAILY MONDAY BUSINESS EDITION MONDAY MAR 27, 2017

The bill limiting how often attorney’s fees will be covered by governments when mistakes are made with delivering public records now seems poised to be passed by the Florida Senate. State Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, says if the bill becomes law, there will be less abuse of records law by profiteering attorneys, but some local transparency advocates say the legislation seeks to disincentivize watchdogs demanding government officials follow the law. 

Steube, who sponsored the public records reform (SB80), says local governments around the state have been increasingly plagued by attorneys aiming at reimbursement rather than public information. “Law firms have been set up that just intentionally set up governments for violations,” Steube says. “They don’t care about the records they are requesting, but about tripping up local government and filing a lawsuit.” State law for years has called on governments found to be in violation to cover attorney’s fees, but Steube says that led to frivolous suits.

Notably, Lakeland in 2014 settled a case for $160,000 after activist Joel Chandler alleged the city had miscalculated charges to meet a records request made of the Lakeland Police Department.

But Michael Barfield, who has worked for Sarasota-based Citizens for Sunshine on records and Sunshine violation cases, says this legislation could hurt many citizens making responsible records requests. “It stinks,” he says. “It’s bad for transparency and bad for citizens being informed by the democratic process.” Specifically, he says media outlets could see delays in having reasonable records requests met by law enforcement and local governments. He suggests judges already have plenty of discretion in dismissing truly frivolous lawsuits. He also says Citizens for Sunshine only files suits when governments are truly in the wrong and mishandling requests from citizens. “The courts and the Florida Bar have appropriately dealt with cases where abuse has been proven,” Barfield says. 

Steube would not finger Citizens for Sunshine or any local group as responsible for frivolous suits, but says his office has worked closely with media advocates to ensure the law only targets abuse. His staff notes that while the bill narrowly passed its first committee, Government Oversight and Accountability, with a 4-3 vote, the bill has been amended to focus more narrowly on frivolous suits since then. After picking up the endorsement of groups like the Florida Press Club and First Amendment Foundation, the bill passed out of the Judiciary committee, which Steube chairs, with an 8-0 vote. The biggest change is allowing a judge discretion in whether a government must pay attorney’s fees.

The bill now awaits a third reading and final vote on the Senate floor.

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