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Politics

Public Records Violations in Lake Point Case Still Stinging Martin County Taxpayers

September 20, 2017 - 6:30pm

Martin County, already down $371,802 for violating Florida's public records laws, was ordered this week to pay Lake Point rock mine near Lake Okeechobee another $130,107.

It is part of a major public records lawsuit accusing county commissioners of denying they conducted public business on private email accounts, then holding mail back once it had been discovered, and in the case of Commissioner Sarah Heard, destroying the record trail.

In a 19-page ruling filed Sept. 18, Circuit Court Judge William Roby said Lake Point, the company that sued Martin County for allegedly canceling a contract to use land to clean polluted water from Lake Okeechobee, was entitled to its additional attorney fees and costs plus interest of $130,106.67 incurred between Feb. 8 and July 11. (After the county objected to Lake Point's initial claim of an additional $158,281.97, Roby reduced it.)

As public records violations go, this case has been categorized as one of Florida's most egregious. Barbara Petersen, executive director of the First Amendment Foundation, said in February it "rises to criminal ... and we’re seeing this as an alarming trend -- cases where governmental officials are using private emails and private common devices in an attempt to avoid disclosure under the public records law.”

Roby's ruling brings the rock mine and restoration project's total award from sanctions against the county for violating public records laws to $501,908. And that's only so far.

“Additionally,” the judge wrote in his Sept. 18 order, “public records that have not been produced may still exist on the private email account of Commissioner Sarah Heard that was recently unlocked by Yahoo!”

Heard has claimed in court testimony that eight years of public records on her personal computer had been deleted due to a hacking event. Arbiter Howard Googe, who wrote the arbitration order filed Feb. 8, said there was “no credible evidence” to substantiate a “hacking event” and subsequent loss of public records.

As of Aug. 1, the date of the court's second hearing on the matter, the county still was in the process of disclosing public records to fulfill Lake Point's 4-year-old public records request, according to court records.

In Florida, citizens have the right to access public records under the state Constitution. The only remedy for non-compliance or a slow response is to award a citizen's attorney fees and costs, including those incurred when litigating over the amount of those fees.

Lake Point is seeking the public records as evidence in their lawsuit for tortious interference against former County Commissioner and environmental activist Maggy Hurchalla, whom Lake Point claims interfered with their county and SFWMD contracts.

Lake Point also filed a breach of contract suit against Martin County, which goes to trial Oct. 16. The South Florida Water Management District settled with Lake Point in August, and are no longer a named party in the suit. However, Martin County has objected to the terms of the SFWMD settlement, and instead of settling itself, has asked the court for a continuance.

Roby will hear the county's arguments for a continuance on Sept. 27 at the Martin County Courthouse at 9:30 a.m. Roby previously told all parties in the case that “no excuses” would be acceptable to delay trial in a case that has dragged on for more than four years. The county's cost in outside attorney fees and costs has exceeded $4 million, according to county records.

Barbara Clowdus, editor and publisher of Martin County Currents, contributed significantly to this story. Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith


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Comments

So... does Florida have "Weak Laws" or "Criminal Politics"? It would seem that "old-time Florida Landowners" are either ARE or ARE NOT using Legal tactics, with Swamp-and-Aligator LAWYERS - who ALWAYS come out on top. Not being a Florida native, I have little comprehension about this issue --- all I know is ---- IT STINKS! So WHOM are the biggest LIARS?

IF they're elected, most are liars, BUT, it is they who control the weakest laws in the country, and by creating laws with absolutely no enforcement penalties is simply a waste of time, and those in Tallahassee are well aware of it!

Well said, Mark!

I just don't care who did what. IF you're in a position of public trust and violate that trust, a civil lawsuit is in no way a fit punishment! The elected officials should already have been removed from office by the Governor, then prosecuted by Bondi!!

There is very little enforcement in Pam Bondi's office they are very weak.... and that is why our government does not fear to break the law there are no teeth. This is Pam Bondi's office on clear violations of the Sunshine law.... Subject: Re: Fwd: Re: Sunshine law request policy violations of law. Date: Wed, 20 Sep 2017 15:54:15 -0400 From: Pat Gleason <Pat.Gleason@myfloridalegal.com> To: Court Case <courtcase001@gmail.com> Hello Ms. Torrey: I don't have a record of your previous email so I am glad that you resent it.. Regarding the issue concerning fees charged by the sheriff's office, our office can issue opinions only at the request of government agencies. Accordingly, we are unable to issue an opinion regarding the validity of the fees in this situation. Section 16.60, F.S., establishes the open government mediation program. This voluntary program provides an informal alternative which may be used by agencies and individuals to resolve an existing public records dispute. There is no cost to participate in this program. Accordingly, if you would like to use this program, please send me an email in which you state that you disagree with the sheriff's office position on the fees to be charged in response to your public records request and that you would like to use this program to resolve this dispute. Please include a copy of your public records request and the response you received on the fees issue. Please copy the sheriff's office on the email so that I can contact that office directly to see whether there is an interest in resolving this issue through voluntary mediation. If you have any questions, please let me know. Sincerely, Pat Gleason Special Counsel for Open Government Inactive hide details for Court Case ---09/20/2017 03:42:56 PM---Dear Ms. Gleason: I have not heard a response from you on thisCourt Case ---09/20/2017 03:42:56 PM---Dear Ms. Gleason: I have not heard a response from you on this records request can you From: Court Case <courtcase001@gmail.com> To: "pat.gleason" <Pat.gleason@myfloridalegal.com> Date: 09/20/2017 03:42 PM Subject: Fwd: Re: Sunshine law request policy violations of law. Dear Ms. Gleason: I have not heard a response from you on this records request can you confirm that you received this message? Sincerely, Carolyn Torrey On 8/30/2017 4:16 PM, Court Case wrote: Dear Ms. Gleason: I wonder if you can assist with the Marion County Sheriff office on their Public Records Request Policy? I have had two opinions on that procedure and policies by two attorneys. They both have concluded the same that the policy is not in compliance. These attorneys are identified as 1) the County attorney for Marion County Commission office who kindly reviewed it. He also went forward to discuss violations but the Sheriff's office attorney refused to review his policy for compliance. 2) First Amendment Foundation I have attached the response and interactions below. I am asking you to review the policy and send me your opinion. If you are unable to, please provide me options to solving the violations of the sunshine law. I have attached the correspondence for your review. Thank you for your continued assistance. ( foot note Marion County Public Schools was attacking me because I reported and won the Federal violations of school access was based on race A violation of the DOJ lawsuit Outlined at bottom of this email ). That is why they targeted me and my children and hurt my son. Sincerely, Carolyn Torrey 1202 SE 14th Ave. Ocala, FL 34471 Ms. Torrey: Your complaint has been received and is being reviewed. We will be in touch with you with a response once the research into has been completed. Best regards, R. Gregg Jerald Chief of Staff Bureau Chief Bureau of Administrative Services Marion County Sheriff's Office Post Office Box 1987 Ocala, Florida 34478 (office) 352-368-3591 (fax) 352-620-7209 gjerald@marionso.com From: Carolyn Torrey [mailto:cdthouse1202@gmail.com] Sent: Wednesday, June 29, 2016 5:32 PM To: Sowder,Marguerite Subject: I had the Ist Amendment foundation review your records request policy and I have a complaint. Dear Marguerite: I am asking for review of your sunshine law and your officers. I know I am being over charged for a Sunshine law request and that your officer at the main office is obstructing the production and over charging. Yesterday I came by with 4 requests on police calls on an address and your office claimed it could not produce all reports. And sought $20 in excess of the allowed 15 per page. Please go below and see that your policy is in compliance with the Sunshine law. I left later and had another sheriff office efficiently produce all four request in less than 10 minutes and Oh, they found them all. Ocala PD has the same efficiency as your outlining office. Maybe an internal revamp is in order instead of asking the tax payers to pay for inefficiency. As a business owner and tax payer I believe this office could be overhauled and now a prior request is below. I believe the officers is obstructing justice and I asking for an investigation. I was shocked at a bill for a copy of a single check copy issued by Marion County Sheriff's office. Costing over $20. Can you imagine if the banks charged $20 per copy of each check? Is this why our taxes are going up? I sent the policy to the experts for review. Response below. Thank you for your time and look forward to your response. Sincerely, Carolyn Torrey 1202 SE 14th Avenue Ocala, FL 34471 Below is the response on the review for the First Amendment Organization the foremost experts on Sunshine Law. -------- Forwarded Message -------- Subject: Re: Is this in keeping with State Sunshine Law? Doesn't matter how large the request is it is. They make a profit. Should a production of a record make money for a public office? Date: Fri, 17 Jun 2016 20:38:41 +0000 From: Barbara Petersen <Sunshine@floridafaf.org> To: Carolyn Torrey <cdthouse1202@gmail.com> The specific copy charges are okay. At first I thought some of the charges might be questionable — for example, the fingerprint charge — but then on second reading, is says fingerprint services so I would presume the SO charges a fee to take your fingerprints, an issue not covered by the public records law. The same is true of other services provided by the SO. For copies of records in an electronic medium — a CD, for example, or an audio tape — an agency can charge no more than the actual cost of the materials used to duplicate the record. So the $10 for a disc (the last item) is not allowed — a CD generally costs less than a dollar. Chapter 119 allows agencies to charge 15 cents/page for paper copies and $1.00 per copy for certified copy. The extensive use provision says an agency can charge for the extensive use of agency resources, whether personnel or information technology or both; if charging for personnel time, the agency can charge no more than the hourly rate, including benefits, of the lowest paid person capable of performing the task. I take issue w/the flat $20/hour for clerical research as well as the policy that only a communications officer or detective can perform specified tasks. If, in fact, only a detective can do the work, then the law says they can charge the detective’s hourly rate. But if someone paid less than a detective can do the work, then the SO can charge no more than that person’s hourly rate. Also, I don’t see a definition of “extensive use” which I believe is required. This is the way it works: If the SO defines extensive as 30 minutes or more and your request takes 20 minutes, you pay for the cost of the copies only. If your request takes an hour, then you pay for the cost of the copies plus 30 minutes of extensive use time. Hope this helps. B. Barbara A. Petersen, President First Amendment Foundation 317 East Park Avenue Tallahassee, FL 32301 800.337.3518 facebooktwitter-2linkedin The Foundation is a member-supported non-profit organization and we need your support. To become a member or make a tax-deductible donation, go to www.floridafaf.org. A proud member of Florida’s Sunshine Coalition! From: Carolyn Torrey <cdthouse1202@gmail.com> Date: Friday, June 17, 2016 at 7:27 AM To: Barbara Petersen <Sunshine@floridafaf.org> Subject: Is this in keeping with State Sunshine Law? Doesn't mater how large the request is it is. They make a profit. Should a production of a record make money for a public office? Dear Barbara: Is this in keeping with State Sunshine Law? Doesn't mater how large the request is it is. They make a profit. Should a production of a record make money for a public office? This is the PUBLIC RECORDS RULE I Question below........... MARION COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE OPERATIONS DIRECTIVE 2080.94 FEES FOR THE REPRODUCTION OF ALL PUBLIC RECORDS A. Fees to be paid: 1. Case report copies - $ 0.15 per page 2. Certified copies - $1.00 per copy; unless every page is requested to be certified then $1.00 per page B. Fingerprint Services There will be a $10.00 fee for fingerprint services per card for Marion County residents. 2. There will be a $25.00 for fingerprint services per card for non-Marion County residents. 3. Concealed Weapons Permits - F.S.S. 790.06(5)(b) states that a fee of $5.00 may be charged for this service. C. Notary services will be a $5.00 fee D. Background checks 1. There will be an initial $5.00 fee for background checks. There will be an additional fee of $1.00 for each additional name, i.e. maiden name, hyphenated names, aka's etc.). There will also be a $0.15 fee per printed page. E. Clerical research fees are $20.00 for the first hour (minimum). Additional research time is billed in increments of quarterly hours at $5.00. Data processing fees will include 1. 911 Audiotapes: fees are based upon the current fiscal hourly rate for a Communications Officer. This fee may include the cost of the compact disc(s). The Marion County Public Safety Dispatch Center does the billing for this. 2. Video tapes - fees are based upon the current fiscal hourly rate for a Detective. This fee will include the cost of the video tape(s). The Forensics Unit does the billing for this. 3. Electronic Media - fees are based upon the current fiscal hourly rate for a Detective. This fee will include the cost of the media. The Forensics Unit does the billing for this. ($10.00 per disc, per Evidence.) -END - Under Florida Law, e-mail addresses are public records. If you do not want your e-mail address released in response to a public-records request, do not send electronic mail to this entity. Instead, contact this office by phone or in writing. CONFIDENTIALITY NOTICE: This message and any attachments are for the sole use of the intended recipient(s) and may contain confidential and privileged information that is exempt from public disclosure. Any unauthorized review, use, disclosure, or distribution is prohibited. If you have received this message in error please contact the sender (by phone or reply electronic mail).

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