Southern Christian Leadership Conference Sues Columbia County School District & Superintendent
Posted February 22, 2015 08:59 am | news–analysis
COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – Friday afternoon the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) filed a law suit against the Columbia County School District, the Superintendent, and the Custodian of Records. The SCLC claims violations of the Public Records Act; Violations of the Sunshine Law; and failure to follow its own rules, which allows a person to be on the School Board agenda.
On January 13, 2015, SCLC member and Columbia County resident, BFaithful Coker, made a public records request for, among other things, the billing statements of School Board Attorney, Guy Norris. The District’s Record’s Custodian, Mike Null, emailed Ms. Coker telling her that the District would require 200 district man-hours to conduct research and redact the records and estimated the cost to be $6,697.63. The District asked Ms. Coker for a good faith deposit of $6,500.
The Pubic Record Law allows 15 minutes of agency inspection before special charges are ratcheted in for staff time and overhead.
Each billing statement of School Board Attorney Norris is a separate record. Mr. Norris’ contract states that he will bill the District on a monthly basis.
On February 15, Ms. Coker re-filed her request asking and explaining to the District that each request for Mr. Norris’ billing statements should be considered a separate request. In her email, Ms. Coker listed the statements one-by-one. She advised the District that she would email each one separately if that was its wish.
On February 18, Mr. Null responded acknowledging the 60 billing statements. He stated that it would take “an estimated 10 minutes per set (you suggested 15 minutes).” The estimated charge was reduced from $6,697.63 to $412.79.
1991: District Ct. of Appeals Ruled on Charges/Extensive Time
On May 3, 1991, the First District of the Florida Court of Appeals, in a split decision (see: FLORIDA INST. LEGAL SERVICES v. DOC, 579 So.2d 267 (Fla.App. 1 Dist. 1991)) ruled that a Department of Corrections clerk could charge if 15 minutes or more was expended in locating and reviewing documents. (Judge Zehmer’s dissent begins on page 4)
That decision, with the addition of the ability to charge more fees, has held throughout the years since then, allowing an agency responding to public records requests to charge after the first 15 minutes if it chose. Each entity may set its own rules and many have, expanding the 15 minute limit and waiving fees.
The Public Records Law
Florida’s Public Record Law, after years of attack by the FL legislature, is still considered the premier Public Record Law in the country.
The Public Record Law is clear: It is the policy of this state that all state, county, and municipal records are open for personal inspection and copying by any person. Providing access to public records is a duty of each agency.
Ms. Coker has asked to inspect 60 separate records. The District has acknowledged there are 60 separate records.
The records need redaction and the District has advised Ms. Coker in writing that it will take 10 minutes per record to redact the information in each record so that she can inspect them.
The law does not allow an agency to charge for under 15 minutes to prepare a record for inspection.
If the District doesn’t change its mind, the Court, depending on the District’s arguments, will decide if the District can make a persuasive case that the 60 separate billing statements can be considered one record or that the 60 separate requests are really one request.
If the Court decides in favor of the SCLC and Ms. Coker, the cash strapped rural District will be responsible for the SCLC’s continuing costs and legal fees.
The District can minimize its loss by agreeing to turn over the records.