While Florida’s Sunshine laws are generally a good thing, there are citizens and lawyers representing those citizens who abuse Florida’s Public Records Law, according to a prominent Manatee County attorney.
“We have a conundrum on our hands,” said Mickey Palmer, who said he was not speaking Thursday in his capacity as the attorney for Manatee County. “The Public Records Act, I agree, is a generally good thing but there are abuses that go on, serious, serious, shameful abuses that the current state of the law does not address and so we have this balancing act in terms of how do we ensure access to public records on the part of the general public versus how do we attempt curb some of the abusive activity.”
After sharing examples of these abuses occurring across the state, Palmer spoke in support of state Sen. Greg Steube’s sponsored Senate Bill 80, which “attempts to curb some of these abuses.”
Senate Bill 80, which became a focus of Thursday’s Manatee Tiger Bay Club luncheon titled “Florida in the Sunshine: Public Records and Open Meetings,” would amend the Florida Public Records Law, giving judges discretion of whether to award attorney’s fees.
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“The current state of the law is a one-way attorney fee provision,” Palmer said. “Even if the government walks away winning every issue in a public records lawsuit under the current state of the law, it has no ability to recover its attorney’s fees in doing so. Sen. Steube’s bill will level the playing field.”
But not all panelists participating in Thursday’s discussion, which took place during Sunshine Week, agreed with Palmer’s support of the proposed legislation. The other panelists were Bradenton Herald Editorial Page Editor Chris Willie and attorneys Andrea Mogensen and Thomas Shults.
“When there are proposed exemptions, when you decide whether or not you support them, ask yourselves if you want to wait five days to find out what’s happening in the news because I don’t think we do,” Mogensen said. “Those efforts won’t pass candidly because news delayed is news denied.”
For Shults, the current attorney fee provision is a good thing.
“It does say ‘shall’ and it should continue to say shall,” he said, adding that some public officials may not be so motivated to comply if the wording is changed.
But Palmer said that 99 percent of government employees are “honorable, decent people who want to comply with the law.”
“This notion that there is a pervasive desire among local government employees to hide things is something I don’t buy into,” he said.
The purpose of act is public access, Mogensen said.
“It’s the right of the people, and we want to keep it expansive,” she said. “It’s something we are leaders in and something we should continue to promote and be proud of.”
Florida is a leader in open government and government transparency, Mogensen said.
“If Florida is the leader in the United States for open government then we are arguably the leader in the world because the United States requires more of its government than most countries on the globe,” she said. “You do have a right to know what your government is doing because it’s a government by the people and of the people. ...We cannot effectively self govern if we are not educated.”