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Tom Rask suing Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri over Sunshine Law violations

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Tom Rask

Pinellas County political activist and blogger Tom Rask is once again gearing up for battle.

Legality of a controversial post-evacuation re-entry permit program has led the Seminole resident and government watchdog to sue Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri for violating public records law.

Rask is the 52-year-old editor of Tampa Bay Guardian, a website “founded on the premise that independent journalism is important for achieving accountability and good government.”

Rask is also well-known locally as a Tea Party activist, as well as a former Republican candidate for Pinellas County Commissioner.

Now, Rask is suing Gualtieri over the program that allows Pinellas County beach residents and business owners to return to the barrier islands after a storm evacuation.

In 2015, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office introduced Emergency Access Permits, a program seeking to prevent “looting and burglary” after a large-scale event – such as a hurricane – that require mandatory evacuation.

According to the Tampa Tribune, the EAP is “a hangtag identification system to allow drivers quick access to the islands after an evacuation.”

Under the EAP program, residents of beach communities would need to obtain and display a permit (provided at no cost) that would hang from the rearview mirror of a resident’s vehicle and be scanned “to verify your residency.” The program covers Belleair Beach, Belleair Shore, Clearwater Beach, Indian Rocks Beach, Indian Shores, Madeira Beach, North Redington Beach, Redington Beach, Redington Shores, St. Pete Beach, Tierra Verde and Treasure Island.

“We’re not just going to let anybody in,” Gualtieri told reporters at the time. “We don’t want people out there who don’t belong in the area.”

Rask’s Tampa Bay Guardian published articles questioning the constitutionality of the EAP program.

In the suit filed May 5 in Pinellas County Circuit Court, Gualtieri, who is also an attorney, communicated with the Guardian through several emails insisting, “there is no constitutional issue” with the program.

“The Barrier Island Re-Entry Program is voluntary and nobody is ‘required’ to obtain a permit,” the sheriff said.

Rask filed a public-records request with the PCSO in May 2016, seeking copies of any legal opinion, internal or external, concerning the constitutionality of its EAP program.

The suit claims that a month later, public records clerk Sabrina Creedon replied, saying that records concerning internal or external legal opinions about the EAP program were exempt from disclosure under Florida law.

Rask said that position was “misguided,” threatening legal action – and he is doing just that.

Arguing the requested public records are not exempt under Florida’s disclosure laws, Rask is seeking the release of all such records.

On the day of the filing, the Tampa Bay Guardian published an article about the lawsuit attributing the action to the Guardian, not Rask himself (Rask is listed as the sole plaintiff).

“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,'” the Guardian piece says. “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.”

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Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.

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