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Building officials deserve fair, not special, treatment

A legislative battle to protect citizens from litigious governments lasted three years. The Legislature's ability to erode the safeguards took only two weeks more.

It is an embarrassing blunder, an illustration of senators and representatives approving laws they haven't read in the final hours of the legislative session.

As reported Sunday by Times staff writer Collins Conner, legislators unanimously approved the "building code enforcement officials bill of rights" in the waning hours of the session. It included a provision allowing the building officials to sue anybody who complains about them.

It directly contradicts legislative action two weeks earlier when an anti-SLAPP suit bill to prevent governments from suing citizens also passed unanimously. That bill was inspired by Pinellas County's ill-advised attempt in 1996 to bully eight environmental activists through litigation. The legal tactic failed miserably in the courts of law and public opinion, and cost Pinellas $550,000 in settlements, plus its own legal bills.

Legislative efforts to prevent governments from intimidating members of the public via civil litigation failed in 1998 and 1999. But the Legislature this year approved a version that removed businesses from the bill's provisions and instead focused exclusively on governments.

The benefits were short-lived. Now, building code officers will be able to stifle criticism of their performance through legal attacks.

Building code administrators also will be granted protections similar to those given police officers under scrutiny. The state will be required to notify a local code administrator of pending complaint and complete the investigation in a timely manner.

Those ideas are not unreasonable, though they are not extended to any other profession governed by the Department of Business and Professional Regulation. Setting a 180-day deadline for a completed investigation should be accompanied by a mandated staffing level at the department to ensure valid complaints aren't dismissed due to workload.

But, granting building officials the ability to sue their critics is the most troublesome. It is counterproductive and will serve simply to stifle future complaints.

The Building Officials Association of Florida, which drafted the bill, offers flimsy justification for it. The association maintains its members have been hounded by unfounded complaints and aggressive Department of Business and Professional Regulation officers resorting to devious investigative tactics.

"It scares me greatly that people are going to be reluctant to file complaints," said Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, the sponsor of the bill prohibiting Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, SLAPP, suits.

Fasano promised he or a colleague will file legislation next year, removing the provisions giving building officials the ability to sue their critics. It is an appropriate action. Building officials should be treated fairly, not with special preference.

Unresolved is the larger issue of last-minute lawmaking in Tallahassee. Minus the discipline to consider each bill on its own merits, senators and representatives are doomed to return to the capital each year to undo botched legislation.