By DOTTY NIST
Walton County has denied claims of being unresponsive to public records requests made by Suzanne Harris, and has also countered other claims raised by Harris in litigation.
On June 30, Mike Burke, county attorney, filed a response to a June 10 amended complaint entered on behalf of Harris, a county resident and president of Edgewater Beach Owners’ Association. Edgewater Condominium, an 18-story beachfront structure, is located on Miramar Beach.
Harris initiated the lawsuit in April, naming the Walton County Board of County Commissioners. Her June 10 complaint, the most recent, also names Martha Ingle in her official capacity as Walton County Clerk of Courts. The lawsuit was filed in the circuit court of the First Judicial Circuit in and for Walton County.
The suit stems from pending litigation against Walton County brought by the owners’ association. Filed in January 2008, the first lawsuit claims, in part, that the county, in connection with County Ordinance 2003-07, also known as “Leave No Trace,” has “imposed multiple, unconstitutional requirements on private property owners who seek to keep their personal items (like beach equipment or a volleyball net) on their Private Real Property during the night.”
In October 2008, Harris filed a public records request in connection with the Edgewater Beach Owners’ Association vs. Walton County lawsuit. Requested were “all email records created or received” between Jan. 1, 2007 and the present “in the possession or control of any county employee or agent” containing specific words or terms. The list consisted of 29 different words or terms. The request specified that the records were to be supplied in the form in which they were maintained on a CD-ROM or comparable media. In December 2008, Harris made a second request, to inspect and copy public records, including drafts, related to Ordinance 2003-07, the “Leave No Trace” program, and the “Remove it or Lose it” program, the former name for the program. This request was for access to “hard copy” records of any county official, employee or agent, extending both to documents not maintained in electronic format and electronically-maintained ones not searchable by entering terms into an electronic filtering device. Also requested in December, among other items, were copies of the county’s information technology and document retention policies.
Harris’ lawsuit, filed in January 2009, contends that, “The County Government has failed to lawfully respond to public records requests and properly manage its record keeping, retention, and disposition of public records, including electronic records, as required by the Constitution of Florida, Florida Statutes and the Florida Administrative Code.”
According to the complaint, the lawsuit seeks to have the court “compel the Walton County Government to comply with Floridaís public records laws.” A court directive for reimbursement of Harris’ attorney fees is also being sought.
The county denies the claims of noncompliance with public records laws.
Harris’ complaint refers to a new software program purchased by the county allowing search terms similar to the ones specified in her request to be entered to pull up public records containing those terms. She charges that the county did not use the program to respond to her first request.
While agreeing that the new program was installed in late November 2008, a month after Harris’ first request, the county denies being unresponsive to the request, stating that Harris was offered and refused the opportunity “for her to have her own information specialists use the Clerk’s new software to perform her own inspection of the County’s records.” It is argued that this offer fulfilled the county’s legal requirement in connection with this request.
The county also denies Harris’ argument that none of the requested “hard copy” records has been supplied to her. It contends that a number of these documents have already been provided by county and South Walton Tourist Development Council (TDC) staff, both in response to the public records requests and in connection with the Edgewater Owners’ Association vs. Walton County lawsuit.
“The request entails searching the records of a number of different County divisions and departments, as well as the TDC’s and the Clerk’s records,” the county maintains.
It is also stated that the county’s public record retention policies are “those established by the Florida Division of Libraries and Information Services,” and that the new software system ensures that e-mails and attachments are perpetually preserved in an archive.
“All e-mails on all of the (county’s) thousand work station computers have been ‘imported’ into the new archive and cannot be deleted,” according to the county response.
In addition to other requests to the court, Harris’ litigation calls for the county to be compelled to “immediately put a hold on all documents and records until an adequate procedure is established for the organization of collections, processing, transmission and dissemination of information in accordance with defined procedures, whether automated or manual,” and for the county clerk to be directed to “take possession of all public records and any electronic equipment that may contain public records.”
The county maintains that doing so is not only unnecessary but would result in county business being shut down completely, “denying essential government services to the people for an indefinite time,” and “unnecessarily overburden(ing) the Clerk in discharging her constitutional and statutory duties.”
The county also makes the argument that, although Florida Statutes provide citizens with the right to inspect or copy any public record, there is no requirement for a government agency to make copies for individual – “although as a convenience to requesters agencies usually do so,” – or to provide copies in any particular format.
“The primary right of any member of the public is to inspect and copy public records, at reasonable times and under reasonable conditions,” the county asserts. Both of Harris’ public records requests are called “unduly burdensome and overbroad.”
According to the county response, prior to Harris’ first request, the county had never received a public records request calling for a word search. Even with the new software, it is estimated that it would take a month of man-hours to fulfill that request.
An evidentiary hearing is scheduled in connection with the public records case, to take place at 9:15 a.m. on July 17 in the Walton County Courthouse.
Dotty Nist may be contacted at email@example.com.