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Controversial public records bill moves forward

With lawmakers searching for answers in a long-running debate, a Senate committee Monday approved a bill aimed at what local-government officials argue are "gotcha" public-records lawsuits.

The bill (SB 80), sponsored by Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, deals with a law that requires judges to award attorney fees to people who successfully file lawsuits against government agencies that have improperly withheld public records.

Local governments contend the law is being abused by people who bombard government agencies with records requests as a strategy to file lawsuits and receive attorney fees or settlements.

Steube's bill called for changing the law to give judges discretion in awarding attorney fees, rather than making the fee awards mandatory.

But the Senate Community Affairs Committee on Monday approved the bill after adopting changes that, in some cases, would continue requiring mandatory attorney fees.

Such cases would involve plaintiffs showing by a "preponderance of evidence" that government agencies "intentionally or willfully refused" to provide public records.

Despite the amended version of the bill passing, some lawmakers said they think the measure continues to need revisions.

Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, also expressed concerns about the amendment. Petersen acknowledged problems with "predatory requesters" who seek public records as a strategy to file lawsuits, but she said mandatory attorney fees are the only leverage many people have to ensure government agencies will comply with public-records requests.

"This (public records) is a right in Florida," said Petersen, whose group has opposed attempts to make attorney fees discretionary. "It is not a privilege. It is a constitutional right."

Buddy Jacobs, general counsel for the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association, said his group just wants the problem with abusive public-records lawsuits fixed.

"It's truly become a gotcha game across the state," said Jacobs, who has defended state attorneys in such cases.