Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Florida's national leader for open government has success defending awards of attorneys' fees

Barbara Petersen
For more than 20 years Barbara Petersen has been leading the fight—largely behind the scenes—to defend open government and freedom of the press in Florida, Susannah Nesmith reports for Columbia Journalism Review. Recently Petersen made a rare appearance in the limelight to lead the fight against state legislation introduced last year that threatens the state's Sunshine Law for open government by letting judges deny attorney fees to winning plaintiffs in open-records cases. So far, she's gotten most of what she wanted, again showing how she is one of the nation's most effective open-government advocates, and a reminder of Sunshine Week, coming up March 13-19.

Petersen, the president of the nonprofit First Amendment Foundation, was already Florida's "leading advocate for government transparency," Nesmith writes. "The foundation, started in the 1980s by a consortium of media groups, is a leading institutional advocate for open government in the state—but Petersen didn’t come to this fight alone. The foundation had recently worked to organize the Florida Sunshine Coalition, gathering together a variety of groups and individuals who have an interest in government transparency, even though it isn’t their primary focus. Those connections were helpful in getting people like Rich Templin, a lobbyist for the Florida AFL-CIO, pushing back on the [proposed] change to the law. Petersen also alerted the media, helping to attract widespread coverage to the proposal."

Nesmith continues, "And she worked directly with the bill’s Senate sponsor, Sen. Rene Garcia, and testified before a Senate committee, something she rarely does. Those efforts paid off: Garcia was willing to listen to reason, Petersen said. He amended his Senate bill to require a judge award attorneys’ fees when an agency wrongly withholds records unless the judge finds, according to the revised language, that the public record request was made for the primary purpose of (1) harassing the agency or (2) causing a violation of the public records law.”

"That change addresses concerns about predatory records requests, while maintaining the default expectation that violators will have to pay legal fees—an important incentive to comply with the law," Nesmith writes. "The House version hasn’t been amended, so the issue isn’t entirely resolved yet. But at this point, the Florida Senate is no longer considering a bill that would have dramatically weakened the state’s public records law. That’s a win—one Petersen can claim much of the credit for."

Petersen told Nesmith, “I get frustrated, but I don’t get tired of it. I don’t think there’s anything more fundamental to a democratic society than the people’s right to oversee their government and hold it accountable. That’s why we call public officials public servants—they work for us.” (Read more)

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