Shared from the 2/19/2016 The Miami Herald eEdition

FLORIDA LEGISLATURE

Compromise reached in Senate public records bill

TALLAHASSEE

Public records advocates won support on Wednesday for an amendment that defuses their concerns over a controversial bill targeting people who attempt to misuse the state’s public records laws to extort money from the government.

The compromise, worked out between the First Amendment Foundation, the League of Cities and the bill’s sponsor, Sen. René Garcia, R-Hialeah, reinstates the requirement in SB 1220 that a judge “shall” award attorney fees in lawsuits when governments violate the state public records laws.

The original proposal removed the requirement that judges award attorney fees and instead gave judges the discretion, prompting public records advocates to warn that it could gut the state’s Sunshine laws by removing the only tool — filing a lawsuit — the public has to seek redress when government officials violate the law.

The bill is a top priority of the League of Cities, which proposed the measure as a remedy to stop a handful of abusive law firms and individuals who file frivolous or deceptive public records requests in an attempt to churn legal fees.

The Senate Fiscal Policy Committee voted unanimously for the amendment to rewrite the bill.

The new language requires that the judge “shall” award attorneys fees and court costs to a plaintiff if the judge determines that the public agency violated the law and the person making the request gave five days notice before filing the lawsuit.

To appease the cities, the bill gives the judge discretion to not award attorney fees if the court determines that the primary purpose of the public records request was to harass the agency or trick officials into violating the public records law.

Mary Ellen Klas: meklas@miamiherald.com and @MaryEllenKlas

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