TALLAHASSEE -- A bill to take away guaranteed coverage of attorney fees in public records request lawsuits unanimously passed its first subcommittee hearing Wednesday.
State Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, is sponsoring the House version of a bill to change a statute that says a judge "shall" award reasonable fees, such as attorney fees, to parties filing lawsuits against agencies for not providing public records if the judge determines the agency acted illegally by withholding the records. Steube's proposed legislation would change the language from "shall" to "may."
First Amendment groups say the legislation, if passed, would be a huge blow to Floridians' rights to open government.
"Over the years, Florida's most cherished institution, that of open and public government, has been dying," said Rich Templin, communications director for the Florida AFL-CIO. "Death by a thousand papercuts. And this legislation is actually a cut to the jugular."
The bill also would make plaintiffs in public records cases wait five days after submitting written requests before they can sue, giving public entities more time to fill requests.
Steube and other lawmakers on the House Government Operations Subcommittee argued the bill is not meant to take away rights from everyday citizens, but to combat the people who use public records request lawsuits to make money on the backs of local governments, and therefore taxpayers. Vice Chairman Rep. David Santiago, R-Deltona, referred to them as "gotcha requests."
"We're not taking people's right to go to court away," Steube said. "We're simply giving the court discretion."
Templin said without guarantee of payment, citizens would not be able to file public records requests, which means those court cases would never be filed. By approving the bill representatives would be punishing every citizen for the work of a few bad actors in the state.
"A citizen should not have to have money in their pocket to make sure they have access to their right to open government," Templin said.
Templin said there are ways to combat the gotcha requests without punishing those with legitimate public record request grievances. Santiago, though he ultimately voted with the rest of the subcommittee to approve the bill, suggested multiple times the part of the bill making plaintiffs wait five days was enough without the controversial change from "shall" to "may."
Keith Rizzardi, an assistant professor of law at St. Thomas University, told the subcommittee the waiting period was not enough without court discretion on fees.
"It would help but it would not solve the problem," Rizzardi said. "An entity can see 20 anonymous public records requests designed to look like spam on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving."
Rizzardi also suggested the bill didn't go far enough, and the legislators should look into allowing judges to make plaintiffs pay the entity's attorney fees if the court found the lawsuit was filed in bad faith.
Steube said he is open to filing such legislation in the future.
"From the beginning, I've wanted to be much more aggressive than I've been," Steube said.
Steube's bill is scheduled for two more House hearings before it can go the floor, and the Senate version still has to go through three committees.
Kate Irby, Herald online/political reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7055. You can follow her on Twitter@KateIrby.