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Fla. Senate Mulls Change to Public Records Law

(CN) - Florida Senate committee approved a bill that opponents say will weaken public records laws because it removes guarantees that people who prevail in a court fight to obtain records will recover legal fees.

Currently Florida allows some government agencies to deny public access to records, requiring them to obtain a court order before the documents or electronic records are released. But, as things stand now, the Florida Public Records Law provides that legal fees be paid to the individual or group that prevails in such a case.

The bill, SB 1220, sponsored by state Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, passed the Senate Committee on Governmental Oversight and Accountability on Tuesday.

It would give judges the discretion to decide whether to award legal fees.

Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, an advocacy group for open government, said the bill, and a similar measure, SB 1221, sponsored by Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, would undermine the enforcement of public records laws in the state.

She told the committee that the potential denial of attorney's fees in is an overly broad attempt to deal with the few individuals and attorneys who have abused the state's public records statute merely to collect the fees.

"It punishes all of us because of the bad actions of a few," Petersen said.

But Garcia and other supporters of the bill argue that weeding out the few who abuse the system is the whole point. They say by placing the decision on fees in the hands of judges, the validity of records requests will receive better scrutiny, and those only out for the fees will walk away empty-handed.

The bill now moves on to the state Senate Judiciary Committee.

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