State senators on Tuesday gave their first approval to legislation that First Amendment advocates say is a threat to open government in Florida.
The bill (SB 80) would make it more difficult to collect legal fees from government agencies when they illegally block access to records that state law says are supposed to be available to the public. Current law says judges must require agencies to pay attorney fees to people who successfully sue them over records, but Sarasota Republican Sen. Greg Steube’s proposal would let the judge decide whether or not to award fees.
Senators on the Government Oversight and Accountability Committee approved the bill by a 4-3 party line vote Tuesday morning with Republicans in favor and Democrats opposed.
It’s a top priority for the Florida League of Cities, Association of Counties and other local government groups. The problem, they say, are a small number of people who file complex public record requests with low-level agency employees in hopes of tripping them up and creating a legal violation to bring a lawsuit and win fees or a settlement.
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“It’s a serious problem of harassment, and it’s been very abusive of numerous agencies,” said Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, who chairs the government oversight panel. “You saw law enforcement, you saw city governments, you saw nonprofits.”
But open-government watchdogs and First Amendment advocates say the bill would actually have a chilling effect on people who are trying to exercise their constitutional right to access public records.
Rather than clamp down on people trying to profit off open record lawsuits, the Senate bill would erode the public’s constitutional right to monitor what government is doing, said Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation.
“People are not going to file lawsuits to enforce their constitutional right of access because they simply don’t have the money,” she said.
The courts are the only way members of the public can force agencies to relinquish documents when they’re illegally obstructing access, Petersen said. But lawyers can cost thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars, and the possibility that a higher court might not award attorney fees would likely encourage public agencies to appeal cases, driving the cost higher, she said.
Similar legislation was filed last year, and the bill’s Senate sponsor, Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, reached a compromise between the League of Cities and the First Amendment Foundation that passed the chamber unanimously but died when the House never took it up.
Garcia has filed the same bill this year, but Baxley said he has no interest in giving it a hearing.
Steube’s proposal, he said, would correct the problem, and lawmakers can find a compromise later.