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Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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Lake Shore Hosp Authority

After a Throw of the Dice, 4 Judges in 2 Courts Agreed, the LSHA Broke the Public Records Law

Attny Bobby Case about importance of the decision: Pt II

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – On October 15, 2015, Columbia County's hometown newspaper, The Lake City Reporter, wrote an article titled, LSHA to pay $150K settlement. The article was a half-hearted, mostly one-sided misrepresentation of the Hospital Authority's Official Public Record Policy, at which the LCR apparently never looked. The estimated $300,000+ in legal fees paid by the Authority's insurance company and the taxpayers were a result, not of the Authority's Official Approved Policy, but of a policy enacted by edict, without Board approval, by the Authority Manager, Jackson P. "Jack" Berry.

The article contained a paragraph apparently added by LCR management, which stated, "Lilker, when asked for comment, said the suit had not been settled to his knowledge." Lilker sent an email to both Editor Robert Bridges and Publisher Todd Wilson, demanding a retraction of the bogus and untrue statement. The email was ignored.

Robert Earl "Bobby" Case, Jr., is one of the pre-eminent public records attorneys in Florida. He handled the lawsuit from after the complaint was filed through the Circuit and District Court of Appeal.

If the Lake City Reporter had contacted Mr. Case, this is what he would have said:

A Fundamental Tool – A Constitutional Right

One of the fundamental tools regular people have to keep our government from overrunning us is the right to know what it is doing – they work for us.

In Florida, we have a constitutional right to inspect and copy any public record the government creates, minus legislative enacted exemptions, so we can see what it is doing. The law says that the government cannot put unreasonable conditions on this right of access. People are specifically allowed to inspect public records “at any reasonable time.”

In this case, the LSHA told Mr. Lilker that its policy was to only allow people to view their public records between the hours of 8:30 a.m. and 9:30 a.m., Monday through Friday. Mr. Lilker told them that those hours didn’t work for him and offered to come at another time. They made it clear to Mr. Lilker that he could ONLY see the records during the time set by its policy.

Before the Law Suit: Manager Berry Dug In

Mr. Lilker told the Authority it was violating the law way before any lawsuit was filed. He practically begged them to follow the law before he went to court.

What was he supposed to do? He couldn’t call the police; he couldn’t call the Attorney General. The Public Records Act is enforced by people going to court to get a judge to make the government comply with the Public Records Act.

At that point, the case wasn’t just about the records; it was also about getting the Authority's illegal policy changed. Getting the Authority to make it right benefited every person in the State of Florida.

Attorney's Fees: the law is clear

Yes. The law is clear. The government has to pay attorney’s fees if the judge determines that they broke the law.

The Supreme Court of Florida has expressly said that any government agency that has to pay attorney’s fees for not giving access to public records should look at that award as a penalty for not giving the people access to their public records.

The Supreme Court has also expressly said that an award of attorney’s fees is supposed to educate that agency in that they violated the law and encourage them to provide public records in accordance with the law in the future.

The law allows attorneys to recover attorney’s fees so regular folks will be able to hire a lawyer to go through what, many times, can be a long court battle.

Looking at the way this case has been spun in the local media, it is clear that the LSHA chooses to not “get the message” that it violated the law and must comply with the law in the future. That is a shame.

The Authority hired a national, big-city law firm to argue that the law wasn’t broken. They argued that we were just trying to get attorney’s fees. That argument was rejected as the nonsense that it is.

Two Courts Found Against Jack Berry and the LSHA

Suwannee County Acting Circuit Court Judge, William F. Williams, III, found that the LSHA broke the law. Judge Williams applied the law protecting the people’s right to see public records as the law intended.

The LSHA stubbornly rejected Judge Williams’ decision and filed an appeal with the First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee.

The 1st DCA ruled in a written opinion that Judge Williams correctly applied the law and that the LSHA had violated the Public Records Act.

That written opinion tells every government agency in Florida that they can’t do what the Authority did: set an arbitrary time to inspect public records. The 1st DCA also awarded attorney’s fees for the work done in the appeal.

The attorneys that worked on this case did good, important work that protected and enforced the people’s rights of access to public records. Mr. Lilker should be commended for sticking his neck out and putting his name on the lawsuit that enforced the people’s rights of access to their public records.

The attorneys that worked on this lawsuit will finally be paid. This is what we do for a living: just the same as a plumber gets paid for stopping leaks; or a doctor gets paid for doing examinations. But there’s one difference: if we had lost, we wouldn’t have been paid one dime for all the many hours of work we did protecting the people’s rights to see public records.

This Was a Case of Law Enforcement

The notion that the LSHA was picked on  is absurd. This was a case of law enforcement. The Public Records Act was enforced exactly as the law says it should be.

Manager Berry's notion, as reported in the Lake City Reporter, that the LSHA determined  that they couldn’t set a specific time for the inspection of public records is absurd.

The LSHA didn’t determine anything. They were hardheaded after losing in the local circuit court and decided to appeal, with the result that two different courts found that they violated the Public Records Act.

Conclusion

Manager Jack Berry and the LSHA got called out for breaking the law. Four different judges in two different courts decided their guilt. The judges agreed that the LSHA broke the law and that the LSHA policy of only allowing records inspection between 8:30 and 9:30 a.m., and only with 24 hours notice, violated both the Florida statutes and the Florida Constitution.

The Lake City Reporter newspaper article reported that the LSHA said, “We determined we can’t set a time” for the inspection of public records. That is deceptive. That is spin.

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