The Guardian today sued Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri after he refused to provide records detailing the “lawfulness and/or constitutionality of PCSO’s Emergency Access Permit (EAP) program.” That program provides for re-entry to the barrier islands after an evacuation, e.g. due to a hurricane.
Gualtieri’s refusal came in response to a public records from The Tampa Bay Guardian. The Guardian wrote two articles last year about the EAP program. The first article raised questions about whether the program violated both the Florida and the US Constitutions. Gualtieri flatly stated “there is no constitutional issue,” but did not elaborate.
Our second article showed that 12 all local public agencies providing information about the EAP program, including PCSO, incorrectly claimed that an EAP was “required” for re-entry. Gualtieri (pictured right) himself has stated in writing that “the permit is NOT required” (his capitalization, not ours).
Today’s civil complaint against Gualtieri claims he used two inapplicable exemptions in the Florida public records law to withhold records. One statute invoked by Gualtieri, namely FS 90.502, expressly states it “shall not be construed to constitute an exemption” under the Florida Public Records law (FS 119.07).
This 1985 Florida Supreme Court decision suggests that Gualtieri may be wrong in his interpretation of the statute. However, that does not mean he will lose in court. Several attorneys the Guardian has spoken to in the last year have complained that courts are not addressing very clear violations of the public records law.
The reason? An unwillingness to rule against government agencies because these agencies also face “serial public records abusers.” These are people or entities who make vague public records requests and then sue agencies if they fail to provide records.
The second exemption cited by Gualtieri only applies in cases where the records involve “pending or imminent civil, criminal or administrative proceedings.” There are no such proceedings, no has Gualtieri alleged that there are any.
The official start of hurricane season is June 1st and the Guardian continues its work to insure accurate information and lawful instructions are provided by authorities. We will publish one more article in which we examine whether local government agencies, after our articles last year, now provide accurate information to the public.
The Guardian plans to file a series of lawsuits against local government agencies for violations of the Florida public records law and the Florida open meetings law, the so-called “Sunshine Law.” Citizens rights to public records and open meetings which they were given lawful notice of are not simply statutory rights – they are rights enshrined in the Florida Constitution.
As always, the Guardian reports and the readers decide. Please like our Facebook page to find out when we publish our articles.