Open records case gives county attorney's office, commissioners a black eye
Hernando TodayThe issue: County settles open records lawsuit without notifying commissioners.
Published: March 25, 2010
Published: March 25, 2010
Our opinion: County attorney's office must be held accountable in this egregious case.
After a multi-year request to Hernando County for "public records," two law firms not only got the information they were seeking but received $21,442 for their efforts.
After county commissioners recently gave County Attorney Garth Coller high evaluation marks, it comes to light that the county attorney's office needlessly cost taxpayer's $21,442 because it purposely failed to promptly respond to a public records request.
On top of that, county commissioners were neither kept abreast of the lawsuit by the county attorney's office nor were they told that a losing settlement had been paid.
At least one commissioner didn't know anything about the lawsuit or the settlement until he read about it Wednesday in Hernando Today. Other commissioners were in the dark throughout the process.
Reporter Mike Bates' story detailed the saga that began in March 2009, including a series of letters and memos between a local law firm and the county. When reviewing some of the letters and memos, one gets the impression of unresponsiveness, obfuscation and outright arrogance on the part of the county attorney's office. There were even threats of harassment leveled by the county attorney's office.
Who the heck do they think they work for?
Then, after a lawsuit was filed and the matter was about to go to court, the county suddenly agreed to turn over the records and pay $21,442 to the plaintiffs in attorneys fees and costs for withholding the records.
The key phrase here: "The county agreed to pay."
Why didn't the county attorney's office simply conform to the law and not drag this out? Could it be arrogance or even incompetence? Or is it simply they don't care because it's not their money?
One of the great strengths of our republic, and Florida in particular, is the public's right to government information. It also mandates that public officials respond in a timely and forthright manner. The public's right to know is basic to our freedom as guaranteed by the Constitution.
In this case, the county attorney's office violated those rights, and the taxpayers were needlessly forced to pay up.
The county attorney's office has to be held to a higher standard in public records cases, and the county attorney must be held accountable in this egregious case.
For starters, the settlement money should come out of the county attorney's budget.
The comment by an assistant county attorney that the "bill" didn't have to be approved by commissioners because it was a "legitimate bill" and "didn't need to go before the board" was a convenient, albeit surreptitious, way to avoid responsibility. It wasn't a "bill." It was the loss incurred by a county attorney's office that failed to carry out its responsibility to the taxpayers and residents of Hernando County.
Any lawsuit settlement should be approved by the board of county commissioners, regardless the cost, and commissioners should have been noticed and kept abreast of the situation. If that had happened, we're confident the matter would not have resulted in a lawsuit in the first place. The records would have been turned over in a timely manner. It would have saved taxpayers $21,442 and commissioners and the county's legal team a lot of embarrassment.
The plaintiff, Nick Morana, in a letter to county commission Chairman John Durzbick said it well: "It is outrageous that, in these tight budgetary times, the county attorney would defy the public records law and unnecessarily expose the county to a major expense."
The county attorney's office was reckless and repugnant in this case. The settlement sends a disturbing message to taxpayers and residents of this county.
By whatever means, commissioners need to ensure this type of behavior by the county attorney's office never happens again. They also need to pay closer attention to what's going on behind the scenes in county government so they aren't made to look like fools.