By DOTTY NIST
Local attorney George Ralph Miller has been given 48 hours to comply with a public records request from Miramar Beach resident Suzanne Harris for documents associated with Walton County’s purchase of a half-acre parcel at the corner of Chat Holley Road and U.S. 331.
Miller oversaw the purchase transaction, completed in October 2010, when serving as special counsel for the county.
Walton County Circuit Judge W. Howard LaPorte made the ruling at a Jan. 30 hearing at the Walton County Courthouse in DeFuniak Springs.
Harris had made her records request on Nov. 23. 2011. A little over a month and a half later, on Jan. 12, Harris sued Miller to compel him to produce the documents.
Harris had requested that Miller furnish all public records related to the purchase, “including all notes, recordings, correspondence and emails, created or received between January 1, 2009 through the present”—and requests for a number of specific records were made, as well.
The lawsuit against Miller is the second filed by Harris in connection with the Chat Holley purchase transaction. On Nov. 21, 2011, she sued the Walton County Board of County Commissioners, seeking to negate the transaction. Among Harris’ allegation in that lawsuit were that the county did not hold “the required public meeting” to retain Miller as special counsel, that the closing for the purchase took place without final BCC approval, and that Florida public disclosure law was violated by Miller’s failure to disclose ownership of the company from which the county purchased the property. That lawsuit is pending.
Harris had subpoenaed all members of the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) for the Jan. 30 hearing, and attorneys were present representing each commissioner. Commissioner Kenneth Pridgen and Commissioner Cecilia Jones were present also, and their attorneys indicated that they were available to testify if called.
The attorney of County Commission Chairman Scott Brannon and those representing commissioners Larry Jones and Sara Comander each made motions calling for the commissioner’s subpoena to be quashed. The motions were based on several factors, including that the subpoenas had been served not to the commissioners themselves but to their aides. Judge LaPorte granted the motions to quash delivered by the three attorneys representing those commissioners.
None of the commissioners were called to testify during the two-hour hearing, but at one point Walton County Administrator Greg Kisela was called as a witness by Harris’ attorney Matthew Gaetz.
Gaetz stated that the Friday previous to the hearing has been the first time that Miller had acknowledged request of Harris’ records request and had made a “partial production” of the records requested. He asked the court to order Miller to comply with the request and to grant recovery of Harris’ attorney fees.
Miller’s attorney Ruston Sanders argued that Miller had complied already, was acting in good faith, and was cooperating with Harris and her representatives to see that she received the records she required. “We had a very productive meeting on Friday,” he said.
“They did nothing for 60 days…it’s too little too late,” Gaetz argued.
The Public Records Act had been a basis for Harris’ suit against Miller. Called as a witness by Gaetz, Miller testified that the law is hard to understand. “I think it is one of the poorest-written laws ever written,” he said.
Miller testified that he thought he had first seen Harris’ records request the week after Christmas. He explained that he had been facing many issues at that time in his business life and had much on his mind.
Miller added that in a conversation with Kisela he learned that Harris had also requested records associated with the Chat Holley purchase from the county.
He said he told Kisela that the county had “everything I’ve got” on the transaction other than his phone records. “What was the point of me giving them to her again? he asked.
However, Kisela testified that sometime in the October-November 2011 time frame, Walton County administration had asked Miller for the documents he had in his possession regarding the Chat Holley purchase. The county had a number of requests for phone records and other documents that may have been in Miller’s possession, he stated. Kisela also said that he had not told Miller that the county would be handling his (Miller’s) obligations in connection with Harris’ records request.
Gaetz also presented evidence that Harris’ request had been sent out to Miller by mail and email on Nov. 23, 2011, that a Dec. 7 email follow-up was sent and confirmed received, and that a Dec. 12 follow up was sent as well.
Calling for Miller to be made responsible for Harris’ legal fees in the lawsuit, Gaetz urged the court not to send the message to others, “wait to be sued and then produce the documents.” Due to his role in the purchase transaction, he maintained, Miller was a custodian of public records. No custodian of public records waits almost six weeks after receiving a records request to respond, Gaetz argued….
Read the full story in the Feb. 2, 2012 edition of the Herald Breeze.