Port Richey activist John King figured the petition opposing a merger with New Port Richey was a public record. After all, he reasoned, a city employee helped to coordinate the petition drive. And the petition documents were handed to the vice mayor, the city manager and the city attorney.
So when Port Richey officials refused to give him copies of the petition, King took the city to court.
But on Tuesday, the court ruled in the city's favor.
Circuit Judge Wayne L. Cobb agreed with city attorneys, who argued that the petition is not a public record under Florida law because the signatures were gathered by private citizens and city employees during their own time.
Cobb also cited city officials' claims that they no longer had the petition documents in their possession.
City Manager Vince Lupo said he was not surprised by Cobb's decision.
"It's something I kind of expected," he said Wednesday. "Of course I'm pleased. Any time that justice prevails, I'm pleased."
King, who represented himself because he said he could not afford to hire an attorney, said he would appeal Cobb's ruling.
"I think it stinks," said King, who also has filed notices of intent to sue the city for defamation and violation of his privacy rights. "I think the judge just didn't listen."
King said he also was upset that Cobb did not find city officials in contempt for failing to produce a copy of a tape that King had requested. Lupo recorded a conversation he had with King about the petition but said he discarded the tape.
King said he has contacted the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee for a legal referral.
Barbara Petersen, executive director of the foundation, a non-profit group that lobbies for public access to government records, questioned Cobb's ruling.
"I think it's quite clear that it (the petition) is a public record," Petersen said. "It was received by city officials . . . and the fact that they no longer have it doesn't change that."
Port Richey Vice Mayor Patricia Guttman cited the petition at a meeting with the Pasco County legislative delegation on Jan. 16. She said the petition was proof that the city's voters oppose the merger.
Guttman said the petition listed 477 registered Port Richey voters. But a Times review of the petition found that many of the names on the petition were not registered Port Richey voters, some weren't registered anywhere in Pasco County, and others couldn't be verified because of illegible signatures or incomplete address information.
Guttman said a city worker handed her the petition, which she sent to Lupo, who sent it to City Attorney Paul Marino, who sent it back to Herbert "Rocky" Schmidt, a city public works employee who helped organize the petition drive.