Court orders attorney to release public records
DeFUNIAK SPRINGS — Citizen activist Suzanne Harris secured a public records law victory Monday over George Ralph Miller, the former Walton County attorney.
Circuit Court Judge Howard LaPorte ruled that Miller, as the county’s legal representative, had intentionally prevented Harris from obtaining records she was entitled to.
He gave Miller 48 hours to make good on Harris’ request for records pertaining to the controversial Chat Holley land deal and ordered Miller to cover the cost of Harris having to drag him into court.
“The Legislature says it’s important when some-one makes a public records request that you listen and you better respond quickly,” LaPorte said in handing down his decision. “I don’t write the laws, but I’m required to enforce them.”
Harris, represented by attorney and state Rep. Matt Gaetz, sued Miller in January after he failed to turn over records requested Nov. 23.
Court testimony indicated the first correspon-dence between Miller and Harris or her representatives was early last week.
The suit accuses Miller of violating the Sunshine Law both through his failure to turn over the documents and by failing to properly acknowledge receipt of the public records request.
Gaetz argued that LaPorte had a duty to rule in his favor. Failure to do so, he said, would send a message to other government entities that it is OK to withhold records and ignore requests for public documents.
“This is a huge win for the citizens of Walton County,” Gaetz said following the ruling. “It sends a crystal clear message that nobody can play games with open government. I hope this ruling doesn’t just help Ms. Harris, but that it helps the media and any other citizen.”
Miller was the first to take the stand at Monday’s emergency hearing on the public records issue.
He testified that he didn’t receive a public records request until sometime after Christmas and that he had other things, including the loss of his job as Walton County attorney, on his mind when he received it.
His attorney, Rusty Sanders, argued that Miller had complied with the public records request and that he’d met a vague state standard for timely compliance.
“I’m not too happy with the ruling,” Miller said as he left the Walton County Courthouse. “But I will say everything I said was the truth.”
The Harris suit against Miller was an opening drama in a much larger production.
She has sued the Walton County Commission in what Gaetz once called “an action to pre-serve the dignity of Florida’s celebrated Sunshine Law.”
All five county commissioners and County Administrator Greg Kisela were represented by attorneys at Monday’s hearing. The lawyers paid close attention, many taking notes, as the courtroom drama played out.
Harris’ legal action against the county specifically targets the commission’s failure to do what was necessary to prevent “the irregular and unlawful activities” it alleges occurred in the course of a county land purchase known colloquially as the Chat Holley transaction.
In that transaction Bayside Properties LLC, a company owned by developer Lloyd Blue, made an estimated $345,000 on the sale of land for a traffic light. The lawsuit seeks reimbursement of those funds.
The lawsuit also demands that the county be required to seek repayment of all funds it paid to Miller, who was retained by the county to negotiate the Chat Holley transaction.
The legal action claims Miller was retained illegally to negotiate the land deal for the county and states he committed acts favoring Blue he knew or should have known were illegal. Miller was terminated by the county as the Chat Holley drama unfolded.
Harris has defeated Walton County before in a court case involving Sunshine Law violations.
In December 2009, the county agreed to settle the first Harris suit and as part of the agreement signed on to place itself under court scrutiny.
Any future county violations of public records law could be met with contempt charges, under terms of the first court ruling.
Gaetz called his win in court Monday “a beginning.”
“I think the good old boy days are coming to an end in Walton County,” he said. “Mr. Miller has been an institution in Walton County for longer than I’ve been alive. The fact he was called to task sends a message to others who may have been playing fast and loose.”