Lawmakers on Thursday unanimously passed a compromise measure on winners of public records lawsuits collecting attorney fees, sending the bill to Gov. Rick Scott.
The House passed the Senate bill (SB 80) on a 115-0 vote.
The legislation requires judges to award attorney fees if they find an agency broke the public records law and a “requestor” gave five days’ notice before filing suit.
Most importantly, a judge must determine if a request was for an “improper purpose,” such as intentionally forcing an agency to break the records law or for a “frivolous” reason.
Local governments have for years complained they’ve been bombarded by frivolous public records requests in order to provide an excuse for requesters to take them to court. Current law requires state and local agencies to cover the cost of attorney fees in public records cases.
Open government watchdogs, such as the First Amendment Foundation, countered that previous legislative fixes would have hurt legitimate actions against local governments and state agencies that unreasonably refuse to respond to record requests.
“The bill is a compromise, certainly, and I hope it deals with the issue of the predatory public record requests without unduly hindering those who simply want the records they’ve requested,” said Barbara Petersen, the First Amendment Foundation’s president.
“I see this as a first step — the Legislature needs to consider passage of a enforcement mechanism so that those who’ve been wrongly denied access to public records have an alternative other than going to court,” she added.
If Scott signs it into law, it won’t apply retroactively, Petersen said, meaning that it doesn’t affect any pending public record request.