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Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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Lake Shore Hosp Authority

Lake Shore Hospital Authority:  Accountability a Major Issue – Public Records Access Restricted Despite Authority Workload Decline 

File Photo:  Board member and former Chairman, Koby Adams (left); former Bd Chairman, Authority Manager, Jack Berry (rt)

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – Recently, former Lake Shore Hospital Authority Board Chairman and Representative Elizabeth Porter's Chief Legislative Aid, Koby Adams, claimed that Lake Shore Hospital Authority Board members are answerable to the Governor. In December of 2011, a report to the Governor pointed out a host of issues regarding independent taxing districts like the Lake Shore Hospital Authority. One of the main issues highlighted was oversight and accountability.

 

Columbia County's Lakeshore Hospital Authority is located in one of Florida's Rural Areas of Critical Economic Concern ("RACEC"). RACECs have the highest poverty levels in the state; depressed high school graduation rates; and median household income levels well below state and federal averages.

The Lake Shore Hospital Authority Board has allowed the Authority Manager's continued restrictive public access policies of only allowing inspection of public records from the hours of 8:30 am to 9:30 am.

Hospital Authority Manager and former Authority Board Chairman, Jackson P. "Jack" Berry claimed that the Authority, "Due to the fact that we consider ourselves "public servants" and our office can be quite congested, we have set aside time for public records inspection, being Monday – Friday from 8:30 to 9:30 AM, with a 24 hour notice."

Traffic in the Authority Declines

Through independent investigation and remarks by Authority Manager Berry it appears that the foot traffic through the Authority Headquarters has slowed down considerably to about ten people a day. It is not clear how many of these are looking for directions or actually Authority clients. The Authority trashes its daily sign-in logs.

In July, the Observer went to the First Amendment Foundation for an opinion regarding the restrictive public records access policies of the Authority.

First Amendment Foundation President, Barbara Peterson, nationally recognized as an expert in public records law advised the Observer in relevant part (citations omitted):

Section 119.07(1)(a), F.S., provides a reasonable right of access to public records:  “Every person who has custody of a public record shall permit the record to be inspected and copied by any person desiring to do so, at any reasonable time, under reasonable conditions, and under supervision by the custodian of the public records.”

The Florida Supreme Court said that the term “reasonable conditions” “refers not to conditions which must be fulfilled before review is permitted but to reasonable regulations that would permit the custodian of records to protect them from alteration, damage, or destruction and also to ensure that the person reviewing the records is not subjected to physical constraints designed to preclude review.”

The Florida Attorney General opined that “reasonable conditions” don’t include rules or conditions of inspection which operate to restrict or circumvent a person’s right of access and “[t]he courts of this state have invalidated measures which seek to impose any additional burden on those seeking to exercise their rights to obtain records” under Ch. 119, F.S."

This means that although an agency can restrict the hours during which public records may be inspected to those hours when the agency is open to the public, but a records custodian can’t legally set an arbitrary time period during which records may or may not be inspected. For example, an agency policy which permits inspection of its public records only from 1:00 p.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, violates the Public Records Act, and the adoption of a schedule in which public records may be inspected during certain hours is impermissible.

During the October 14th Authority Board Meeting Manager Berry announced that one of the Authority's three employees went from working five days to part time, "because everything's slowed down some. She's only working three days a week now."

Authority Manager Berry has dug in and refused to expand public records access to other than 8:30 am to 9:30 am.

The Lake Shore Hospital Authority will not answer questions from the public. Until SB50, a bill which guarantees the public's right to comment was signed by the Governor, Koby Adams banned public comments, a practice that was carried forward into the Board Chairmanship of Dr. Waseem Khan. Hospital Authority Board members, Marc Vann, Stephen Douglas, Lori Chancy, and Stephen Douglas, all Governor appointees, never questioned this practice.

In 2008, under the Chairmanship of then Chairman Berry, some questions required a "public records" fee in order to be answered.

The Authority Board has recently banned photographs of it doing its public business.

Florida is one of the few states that have a special office which deals specifically with special districts, such as the Lakeshore Hospital Authority.

The Observer asked Jack Gaskins, the Director of the Special District Information Program, what citizens can do regarding Authority Board oversight, Mr. Gaskins said, "Part of what citizens do is go to meetings and ask questions and help hold them accountable."

Due to the recent photo ban, file photo used.

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