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A Times Editorial

Attorney should be admonished

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 17, 2002

Citrus County Attorney Robert Battista overstepped his authority when he issued a memorandum last week that instructed county employees to hide records about a controversial development project from the public.

After some residents recoiled -- quite rationally -- at that edict, Battista did have the good sense to reconsider his ill-advised counsel and rescinded the memo the next day.

But Battista's actions are disconcerting on two levels.

First, Battista should have sought and received the County Commission's approval before imposing a gag order on employees, or instructing them to withhold public records about the Halls River Retreat condominium project. Even if Battista believed the law supported that move, he does not have the authority to establish board policy or dictate assignments to county employees outside his department.

More disturbing, however, Battista's actions reveal the apparent intention of county government to misuse its authority and resources against taxpayers who believe the County Commission erred in approving the condo developers' plans.

Opponents of the development -- and there are thousands -- are exercising their constitutional right to challenge the commission's interpretation of the Comprehensive Growth Management Plan in court. Battista's back-to-back memos were a pre-emptive and transparent attempt to control the flow of public information to those who might use it to build their case against the county.

Even after he thought better of his initial advice to deny the release of documents relating to Halls River Retreat, Battista still wants county employees to not talk to anyone about the project and for them to keep a record of those who ask questions or ask to view records.

Again, that is heavy-handed and goes beyond the county attorney's purview. Employees have a constitutional right to free speech, just as the public has a constitutional right to view, without risking intimidation, the documents it pays government employees to create and maintain. Moreover, those employees have a duty to assist the public with any reasonable request.

The commission should admonish Battista for his misstep and make it crystal clear to him that the board, not he, sets policy, and that he has an obligation to brief them on his legal strategies before he implements them.

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