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Hernando judge rips commissioner over public records request

BROOKSVILLE — Chief Circuit Judge Daniel Merritt Sr. responded to the public records requests of County Commissioner Jeff Stabins on Thursday by issuing a public records request in return.

In a strongly worded e-mail to Stabins, Merritt states that the judiciary does not have the document Stabins seeks. He also accuses the commissioner of "continued efforts to politicize the judicial space issue for your own shortsighted agenda.''

"Sophomoric attempts at innuendo, intimidation by baseless public records requests and publication of the same to the media before allowing a response in order to get a controversial headline is irresponsible and does not promote open dialog,'' the judge wrote.

Stabins brushed aside Merritt's response as "grumpy.''

"He doesn't own the courthouse,'' Stabins said. "It belongs to the people of Hernando County.''

Stabins asked earlier this week for a copy of a study of judicial space needs done by county staffers about five years ago. County staff members visited the courtrooms in the government center and reported back how often they were used. Stabins was told that the judiciary had the report and that it had been "deep-sixed.''

He was seeking the report to help answer the question of whether the judiciary needs more space as the commission is set to discuss its future space needs.

At issue is whether the county should give the Government Center to the judiciary and possibly purchase the SunTrust Bank building and related property, offered recently by bank executive Jim Kimbrough, for all other county offices.

Commissioners will discuss the issue Tuesday and County Administrator David Hamilton has told them via a memo that he will bring back a draft plan for providing needed space on March 8, an earlier date than had previously been planned.

When Stabins did not receive a response from Merritt, he sent a second public records request Wednesday, noting that the judge should know where the report was because Merritt "threatened board employees with a charge of contempt of court if the document (was) not turned over to you after its completion.''

"I must respond and advise that same is patently absurd and completely untrue,'' Merritt wrote in response. "I would never embarrass the office I hold or betray the public trust by exercise of such poor judgment. Regrettably, some public officials lack integrity and cannot say the same.''

Merritt said his staff could find no record of the report and that if the record existed, the county should have it. So he made a public records request of Stabins for the same document, offering to review it and determine its accuracy.

The judge also reminded Stabins that the work of the judiciary affects "the lives, liberty and property of the people of Hernando County.''

He concludes his e-mail with the same theme as several of his recent visits with the County Commission by saying: "Be mindful in your deliberations of the judiciary's inherent authority to require and have enforced the commission's duty and obligation to provide reasonable and necessary space for court-related functions as required by the Florida Constitution'' and state statute.

"The one positive thing that comes out of this grumpy response is that he is apparently supporting my effort for a new current study to be done,'' Stabins said. "I hope he'll be in attendance to support a study of the actual usage of the courtrooms in 2011, although we don't have to have his approval.''

Parks and Recreation Manager Pat Fagan, who oversaw completion of the study several years ago, said he was not sure where the final copy landed but his staff is also looking for it among boxed up records.

He did say he remembered that it showed that the courtrooms were often empty and that he and then-County Administrator Gary Kuhl met with Merritt to go over the results.

At the time, Fagan said Merritt explained that the courtrooms were scheduled for use by one of the staff and that, if no proceedings were going on in them when county workers did their checks, it meant the cases had been settled in some manner.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

Hernando judge rips commissioner over public records request 02/17/11 [Last modified: Thursday, February 17, 2011 8:11pm]

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