WEST PALM BEACH – Informed citizens make better decisions, which is why the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF) filed an amicus brief in a Florida 4th District Court of Appeal case over a mining dispute in Martin County, a PLF spokeswoman said.
"We filed an amicus brief in the Lake Point Phase I v. Martin County case because strong public records laws give citizens access to the information they need to hold government accountable," Christina M. Martin, a staff attorney in PLF's Atlantic Center in Palm Beach Gardens recently told the Florida Record. "PLF knows firsthand that public records can arm citizens with evidence of constitutional or statutory abuses, enabling them to make better decisions in court or in the voting booth. The availability of attorney fees makes it possible for many citizens to enforce the public records law in the first place."
Pacific Legal Foundation is a not-for-profit law firm with libertarian leanings and a strong advocacy for private property rights and an informed citizenry.
The Florida lawsuit began in February 2013 as a dispute between Lake Point, a company that owns more than 2,000 acres in western Martin County, and the county over a disagreement involving rock mining. Lake Point alleged that Martin County broke an agreement to allow rock mining on the company's property and interfered with the company's $1.5 million project to provide drinking water to West Palm Beach and other area utilities.
Other allegations in the case involved destroyed, altered and delayed delivery of public records the county was required to produce. Missing records purportedly included emails between county commissioners.
Part of the amicus brief filed by the PLF in late February takes issue with a lower court’s ruling over the county's failure to release some records, which the PLF maintains is a clear violation of the state's Public Records Act. The trial court ruled that Lake Point was not entitled to attorney fees, because the county’s failure to release records had been "inadvertent” and that the county had made a reasonable effort to respond.
"The lower court’s decision violates the spirit and intent of the Public Records Act by creating a new exception to the law’s requirement that government pay attorney fees when it violates the public records law," the PLF amicus brief said. "Contrary to the court’s reasoning, the Act does not allow the government to escape paying attorney fees if its failure to abide by the law is 'reasonable' or merely 'inadvertent.' The attorney fee provision requires only that the government’s failure to abide by the Act forces a plaintiff to file a lawsuit in pursuit of public records. The provision is an important part of fulfilling the intent of the Act because it motivates the government to follow the law, and it compensates people who enforce the terms of the law. The provision also helps protect the public’s access to records themselves, which protects our representative system of government."
After the brief was filed, Martin County responded to a Lake Point request to release public records that had been part of Lake Point’s original public records request. Lake Point then filed a motion requesting the case be returned to the trial court for reconsideration. On April 6, the Florida 4th District granted the motion and relinquished jurisdiction to the trial court for 30 days to consider setting aside a judgment and retrying the case.
"I would have liked to have seen the 4th District Court of Appeal decide this case and set a good precedent for the public’s right to access public records," Martin said. "However, the court was wise to give the trial court another opportunity to consider the facts and decide whether Lake Point is entitled to have its attorney fees paid for having to sue the government to get it to release public records."
Martin is counting on the trial court to do the right thing.
"I hope the trial court will recognize that the Public Records Act does not make exception for sloppy or even reasonable mistakes," she said. "The Florida Legislature created a right to attorney fees in circumstances such as these in order to strengthen the public records law by motivating government agencies to be more responsive and careful in responding to requests for records. The availability of attorney fees makes it possible for many citizens to enforce the public records law in the first place."