The open-government lawsuit involving Venice City Council members' e-mails on personal computers is drawing national interest.
Judges have ruled that private documents on public computers can remain private.
But a circuit judge's ruling in Sarasota County this week is the first time public officials have been ordered to turn over private computers to comply with public records requests, said Charles Davis, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition at the Missouri School of Journalism.
"It's extraordinary," said Davis. "It's really a big case; the national freedom-of-information movement will be watching."
Circuit Judge Robert Bennett issued a decision Friday granting an emergency request for access to City Council members' government-related files on their personal computers.
The three-page order said Councilmen John Moore and John Simmonds, and Mayor Ed Martin could not "alter, reconfigure or dispose of" computers that had been used to send or receive city-related messages.
Bennett also ordered the three to quit using their personal computers and turn them over to the city clerk.
Within 30 days, a computer expert selected by Sarasota activist Anthony Lorenzo, who is suing the city and four council members, will be allowed to copy files on the computers to see if they contain public information.
In a suit filed last month, Lorenzo alleged that council members Sue Lang, John Moore and Mayor Ed Martin improperly communicated about public business by both public and private e-mail accounts on home and city-issued computers.
He argued, among other things, that the e-mails violated Florida's Government-in-the-Sunshine Law.
The lawsuit followed questions this spring about the City Council's handling of the development of a controversial airport plan, and comments by City Manager Black that council members had to be repeatedly reminded of the Sunshine Law's requirements.
Last month, city officials received numerous requests for e-mail records, from the Herald-Tribune, Lorenzo and others.
Simmonds, who was not part of Lorenzo's initial Sunshine Law complaint, said he could not comply with records requests because he had deleted e-mails from his private e-mail account on his home computer.
Lorenzo added Simmonds to his suit and filed an emergency motion to preserve evidence.
In a hearing Wednesday, Lorenzo's attorney, Andrea Mogensen, questioned five of the seven council members on their use of private e-mail to conduct public business and whether they deleted files.
Moore was out of town on vacation and Martin did not appear, despite being subpoenaed. City Attorney Robert Anderson said Martin did not receive proper notice and unsuccessfully moved to have the subpoena quashed.
Council members Lang, Vicki Noren, Rick Tacy and Ernie Zavodnyik testified that they had turned over any e-mails from their private computers and had not deleted any. They were not required to submit their home computers for an examination.
But because Moore and Martin were not in court to testify, the judge ordered them to surrender their home computers. They would be subject to the exam unless Mogensen is satisfied that they have not destroyed public records.
After Wednesday's hearing, Black asked all council members to surrender their city-issued laptops while the case proceeds.
Last week, the city locked the public server so no files could be deleted and ordered all city board members and council members to preserve their records.
"The order is reasonable, and I assure you it will be complied with," Anderson, the city attorney, said of the judge's decision.
Bennett will resolve any disputes about public vs. private information on the home computers.
"We're very pleased with the decision," said Mogensen. "It was not unexpected."
"What is so extraordinary about this case is the judge is making something personal available to determine what is public," said Adria Harper, director of the First Amendment Foundation.
"It would set important precedent and make public officials understand public records law and its broad reach."
You should see the smile in my face right now.
(h/t to you know who for the heads-up)