Addtionally, the Court accepted the position of the Clerk’s office that a digitizing contract which Ellis claims exists - does not.
Needelman and Ellis are locked in the August 14 Republican primary battle for the Clerk’s Office leadership.
Ellis contended in his lawsuit that a legal opinion letter from the law firm of Krasny and Dettmer, P.A. regarding a contentious digitizing contract between the Clerk’s Office and BlueGem LLC should have to be released, but Judge John M. Harris ruled that the letter is exempt, citing the following statute.
Section 447.605(3), Florida Statutes, provides an exemption for "work products developed by the public employer in preparation for negotiations, and during negotiations." The exemption is limited and does not remove budgetary or fiscal information from the purview of Chapter 119, Florida Statutes. See, Bay County School Board v. Public Employees Relations Commission, 382 So. 2d 747, 749 (Fla. 1st DCA 1980), noting that "[r]ecords which are prepared for other purposes do not, as a result of being used in negotiations, come within the exemption of section 447.605(3)."
The Clerk’s Office had also claimed relief due to attorney-client privilege due to the potential of future litigation. Judge Harris called this claim “disingenuous.”
“This is not a defeat,” Ellis said. “I will be filing an objection later this week. Most of the public records I have gotten were only released because I got this hearing.”
The Clerk of Courts office released the contract with BlueGem LLC on June 29, 2012. Ellis believes that a prior contract was signed on May 23, 2012 since that was when a $500,000 payment was made by the Clerk’s Office to BlueGem before the contract signing.
In Monday’s proceedings, the Clerk of Court's Attorney Merrily Longacre denied knowledge of an earlier contract. The judge advised Longacre that she was representing the Clerk’s Office and she acknowledged this was the official position of the office. In other words, Judge Harris was taking her word as a witness for the Clerk's office rather than just mere argument of an attorney. She said that Ellis has been provided with all contracts related to the BlueGem.
The judge also ruled that the Clerk’s Office has until Noon on Friday to deliver related public records requests to Ellis.
Longacre requested that the judge review any future public records requests from Ellis. The judge denied that request, telling Longacre to "take that up with the legislature."
The judge did not address Ellis’ claims of excessive costs, noting that the hearing was related to a public records request. He did advise Longacre to keep costs in line with statute.
Needelman issued this press release following the Court's decision:
For Immediate Release
“Courts Rule that Mr. Ellis Received Everything Outlined in his Petition Prior to the Hearing”
July 23, 2012
Scott Ellis admitted in court today that he sued to obtain information he already had. In the court case against Clerk of Courts Mitch Needelman filed by candidate Scott Ellis, Ellis was forced to acknowledge several times that the information he sought in the suit was already in his possession, having been received from prior public records requests. This admission proves that Ellis filed this suit, within weeks of the election in which he hopes to regain the Clerk’s position, as a political grandstanding gesture designed to garner attention and possibly votes in his bid to oust Needelman from his position.
Since filing as a candidate, Ellis has struggled with the stigma of having resigned his position as Clerk midway through his third term. He has employed numerous tactics throughout the campaign to draw attention away from this fact. This lawsuit is the latest in a long string of political posturing.
After publicly accusing Needelman of flagrant misuse of his power as Clerk to refuse to release information, and going as far as suggesting criminal activity regarding recent contract negotiations, Ellis gained little from his “day in court” with the exception of the judge setting some official guidelines regarding information release, which have already been followed in previous records requests.
Per the Court’s instruction the Clerk will continue to release certain documents per state statute. The Court has ruled that Ellis has received all records requests he has made that fall under the Sunshine Laws with exception of a single, most recent request for a 17 page document, which will be released upon payment of the standard fees charged for public records requests per Florida Statutes.
An attorney/client privilege letter, which Ellis demanded be released, remained protected per the judge’s order. Other information cited in the lawsuit was deemed to have already been released. All in all Ellis did not make the impact he hoped for, and the taxpayers were once again forced to pay for Ellis’ effort to gain publicity for himself and his campaign.
“We were confident in our position on these matters,” said Needelman, “But sometimes it takes judicial opinion to make the case clear to everyone.”
Clerk Needelman has confirmed that since he took office there has been an avalanche of emails from Ellis, some with multi-layered requests for information in a single email correspondence. Additional requests from Ellis’ associates, essentially for the same information on a different day, has resulted in a quagmire of paperwork that is hugely burdensome. Fulfilling these requests has interfered with getting the real work of the Clerk’s office done.
Needelman said: “Although we fully expect Ellis to find another way to create issues, it is the way he has campaigned before, and he will probably continue with it until the election.”
Ellis speaking with the media after the judge's ruling.