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Former volunteer sues city over public records access

NEW PORT RICHEY — A former volunteer turned critic of New Port Richey's Animal Protection Unit has filed a lawsuit against the city, saying her right to public records has been violated.

Her primary evidence: a demand from the city that she pay $2,300 so an attorney could review the records before handing them over.

Former volunteer Jessica Caplette filed the lawsuit Aug. 15 asking a judge to order the city release records concerning the animal control program and pay her attorney's fees.

For more than a month, Caplette has sought to view documents concerning veterinary care of animals at the unit. The city initially asked her for a $50 deposit to conduct the records search, which Caplette paid.

Caplette told the Times she sought the records July 7 to review before a meeting she scheduled with interim City Manager Susan Dillinger and interim police Chief Kim Bogart to voice her concerns over the city's kennels in Land O' Lakes.

But Caplette said her request stalled when she informed Dillinger in an email she would bring an attorney to the meeting.

On July 19, Caplette said City Clerk Doreen Summers emailed back, saying her request needed to be reviewed by the city attorney and would require a $2,300 deposit.

"Since you have arranged for attorney representation, we must be absolutely certain that what we provide you is correct according to all laws," Summers wrote, according to Caplette's lawsuit.

Caplette's attorney, Marcy Lahart of Gainesville, blasted Summers' claim that because her client obtained an attorney it should trigger a costly legal review.

"People have the same right to view public records whether they are represented by legal counsel or not," Lahart said. "I would hope the city was certain they were following the law regardless of who is requesting public records or whether they are represented by legal counsel."

According to the suit, assistant city attorney Jim Lang told Caplette in a later email that some of the records she requested may need to be redacted because "for example, a pet owner's personally identifiable information is protected by HIPPA," the federal law that shields medical information.

Tom Julin, a Miami litigator who specializes in First Amendment law, said he'd like to see the city cite specific exemptions to the request.

"I can't imagine any aspect of HIPPA … that would apply to the record that she's seeking," he said.

Public records laws are vague with regard to when records need to be combed by an attorney, Julin said. Exactly what's being requested and whether the information is likely to fall under exemptions could come into play in the lawsuit.

But jacking up records costs by running them by an attorney "seems to be a common tactic," Julin said. "It's being increasingly used to frustrate the effectiveness of the public records law."

City officials did not return requests for comment on the suit.

Former volunteer sues city over public records access 08/20/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 20, 2013 8:05pm]
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