Hospital foundation asks judge to reconsider ruling on public records

Wednesday, June 17, 1998

The city of Tarpon Springs, Fla., is fighting for access to records and meeting minutes associated with operation of the Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital.

The Tarpon Springs Hospital Foundation is a private group that operates the city-owned facility. Its attorneys argue that the foundation is not a public agency subject to the state's sunshine law, which requires meetings among public officials to be open to the public.

A circuit judge recently sided with the city, located 20 miles west of Tampa, ruling that the foundation was performing a government function, and therefore its records and meetings must be made available.

The foundation responded by asking Judge Crockett Farnell to reconsider his ruling in light of a law that took effect two days prior to the June 1 ruling. The new law exempts the records and meetings of any private corporation operating a public hospital. Lawmakers said that enforcing public records laws would discourage private corporations from operating public hospitals.

The Tarpon Springs Health Facilities Authority–a group that leases the Helen Ellis building from the city, then leases it to the foundation–had requested a list of the foundation's members and copies of minutes from its board meetings.

Authority attorney John Hubbard filed a response to the foundation's motion on Monday.

He said that the exemption is unconstitutionally broad and does not apply in this case.

“This is a tough issue,” Hubbard said. “The community should be fully informed to the degree that's appropriate for general understanding of what the organization is up to.”

Foundation attorneys Susan Kircher and Samuel Braver did not return phone calls.

“If the foundation can prove that the statute applies,” Hubbard said, “then they will prevail.

“But the courts in Florida have jealously guaranteed the rights of public access by our citizens, and I believe that this court will be inclined to uphold that protection because the public should have that information.”

Farnell has not yet addressed the foundation's request.