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Warning: Mad Law Disease outbreak

By GREG HAMILTON
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 17, 2002

There is a virus taking hold of the great minds in Tallahassee and it's creeping into the crania of certain Citrus County officials.

Call it Mad Law Disease. And be afraid, be very afraid.

The symptoms are benign at first, but the effects are spectacular.

First, a person hired by the public begins to feel all-powerful, that he or she knows better than you what is best for you.

Then, a form of amnesia takes hold and the victim forgets who really is in charge in any government (hint: the answer is you, the voter and taxpayer, not the public employee).

The virus then manifests itself in outrageous ways, often accompanied by its cousin -- Foot in Mouth Disease. It's truly an ugly sight.

Citrus County got a dose of this affliction last week when our county attorney (note: you pay his salary) decided to invoke a statute that doesn't exist in order to keep you, the public, from gaining access to information generated at the expense of you, the public.

The case dealt with citizens who are outraged at the inexplicable action of a majority of the board of county commissioners to approve a huge time share condominium project on the shores of an Outstanding Florida Waterway.

The reasons to deny this endeavor are as numerous as the people who have signed petitions and written letters protesting the plan. Commissioners Jim Fowler, Josh Wooten and Roger Batchelor, however, have told their bosses, the citizens, that their opinions (and the county's growth laws) are meaningless.

It's Mad Law Disease at its worst.

The citizens have not given up, however. They are digging into their own pockets (with the help of a wealthy benefactor) to finance a legal fight to stop this travesty. How's that for fairness: Citizens are paying for both sides of the legal fight -- their own expenses and those of the county government, whose actions they oppose.

Last week, things got downright ugly when County Attorney Robert Battista succumbed to a crippling case of Foot in Mouth Disease.

Inspired, perhaps, by stories in Sunday's Times about the citizens' impending legal challenges, and without referring to Florida statutes, he ordered county staff (note: your employees) not to release any public records (note: you paid to have them generated) related to the project. Staff was told they can't even talk to the public (note: that would be you) about the Halls River Retreat.

When the lawyer was informed that the law says he can't do that, he withdrew the worst elements of the edict. Battista did, however, "advise" staff not to talk to the public about the project. Further, staff should tell the county attorney about any such records requests and which documents are provided.

The law does provide certain narrow exemptions to the public records statutes in the event of impending litigation, but not such a broad-brush lock-down. Most troubling, however, is that the county attorney's first reaction was to hide public records from you, the public.

Battista told the Times later that, "The impression is there for those who wish to assume there is something behind this hiding of information."

Gee, ya think so?

Battista, Fowler, Wooten and Batchelor have a lot of company in the Mad Law Disease infirmary. Their similarly afflicted counterparts in Tallahassee are working tirelessly not only to keep public records out of your hands, but to make it all but impossible for citizens to oppose a damaging development.

A Senate bill aimed at keeping people from suing to block building projects is methodically moving through committee. A similar measure is winding its way through the House.

Under the bills, a person would have to be directly affected by the decision to develop in order to challenge it. Tweaking in the committee last week opened a slight crack in the door to allow environmental groups, under certain conditions, to get involved.

Here's the kicker: If the opponents lose, they'll have to pay the legal expenses of the developer.

That's a triple-whammy. A citizen would have to pay his own legal expenses; his taxes would pay the government's legal fees; and if he lost, he'll pick up the tab for the developer's legal team. All of that simply to force the government to do its duty and protect the community.

Yep, this Mad Law Disease is a killer. Luckily, you, the public, have an antidote at your disposal.

And you don't have to go to the hospital, just the voting booth.

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