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Public records are for everyone, not just the press | Editorial
A Madeira Beach retiree is challenging governments on their procedure and public records. We can all be like him.
Overgrown grass at the property of Jim Ficken in Dunedin, who was fined nearly $30,000 in code violation fines for uncut grass. [City of Dunedin]
Overgrown grass at the property of Jim Ficken in Dunedin, who was fined nearly $30,000 in code violation fines for uncut grass. [City of Dunedin]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Jun. 5, 2020

Madeira Beach retiree Bill Gay is a prime example of how the power of public records lies with the people, not just the press or the government. He has challenged local governments on three previous occasions. In each lawsuit, he alleged that governing bodies failed to follow procedure or public records laws. Each time he has emerged the winner.

Gay’s fourth lawsuit — the outcome still undetermined — centers on the city of Dunedin’s handling of a resident’s code enforcement violation. The city sued Kristi Allen in late 2018 for $103,000 in fines and interest related to uncut grass and a dirty pool, even though the home had been signed over to a bank years earlier. The city only backed down after a USA Today investigation named Allen’s case as an example of governments gouging their residents.

In the end, Allen filed a motion to have the city pay her attorney’s fees. The two sides settled for $40,000 with no public meeting. Gay’s lawsuit contends that the closed-door settlement violates the state’s Sunshine Law, requiring that public business be discussed publicly, with prior notice so members of the community know what’s on the agenda and can attend if they so desire.

Gay’s background makes him particularly knowledgeable when it comes to public records compliance. He worked 30 years in management consulting, part of that time for local governments. He’s not looking for a windfall, but he does often ask that his legal fees be reimbursed. Gay proves that with a little digging and some public records requests, any citizen can investigate the actions of their city governments.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.