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Bill again targets attorney fees in public records cases

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A bill that would give judges the discretion to award attorney fees in public records lawsuits was refiled Wednesday in the Florida Legislature.

New state Sen. Greg Steube, a Sarasota Republican and lawyer, is again behind the legislation (SB 80). He backed a version of the bill last session as a state representative. It passed the Senate unanimously but died in the House.

The measure changes the word “shall” to “may” regarding courts awarding legal fees when an “agency (has) unlawfully refused to permit a public record … to be inspected or copied.”

It would also require a “complainant (to) provide written notice of the public records request to the agency’s custodian of public records at least 5 business days before” suing. Records requests are not normally mandated to be in writing.

The idea is to cut down on the number of “frivolous” lawsuits at taxpayer expense by eliminating guaranteed attorney fees in cases where public officials made an honest mistake, bill advocates have said, including the Florida League of Cities.

Open government watchdogs, such as the First Amendment Foundation, have countered that the bill would instead affect legitimate actions against local governments and state agencies that unreasonably refuse to respond to record requests.

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