By: Gary Marston
Barbara Jeffords Lemley has a friend who was the sole employee of the Lake Shore Hospital Authority. The agency, created by the Florida Legislature in 1947, provides health care for poor residents of Columbia County.
Lemley, 63, who lives in Lake City and works in real estate rentals, started attending meetings of the authority in 2004. Lake City is 32 miles north of Gainesville and is where the authority is based.
When the authority hired an executive director, Lemley questioned his qualifications. She sought documentation through public records.
“The authority is difficult to get public records from,” Lemley says. “They make it tough.”
To learn about public records, Lemley attended a community college seminar. Barbara Petersen, president of the nonprofit First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee, gave the open-government, how-to talk.
Following that primer and after studying the Florida Public Records Law further on her own, Lemley asked the authority for a copy of a background report for the hiring. “He only provided Page 1 and 2. Pages 3 and 4 were confidential. He said it was a credit report,” she says.
The authority said the credit report is not public because a federal law, which supersedes the state record law, protects it.
Lemley turned to Petersen, who is a lawyer. Petersen wrote to the authority in July. She said the federal law applies “only to consumer reporting agencies,” which the authority is not.
In response, the authority asked its lawyer for a legal opinion. Saying a lawsuit is imminent, the authority used a litigation exemption in the law to withhold the credit report. Lemley says she has not mentioned a lawsuit and cannot afford one.
She has a suggestion for the state: “It would be nice if there were an oversight agency to handle these issues, versus having to sue.”