Have you ever become so frustrated with government red tape that you simply lost your composure? Most of us have. While many swear they will do something legally about the governmental problem, most never follow up. The old phrase, “you cannot fight City Hall,” does not apply to a few of us who fight, and then fight some more. It does not apply to a special client of mine, Suzanne Harris, who brought Okaloosa County to its knees in legal proceedings and has garnered national recognition for her successful efforts. Her work underscores the importance of open public records, and our efforts for policyholder requests of those records from Departments of Insurance.

Sometimes in life, the little sorrows generate responses far out of proportion to the matter at hand. The building and governmental officials of Okaloosa County learned this lesson when a seemingly trivial demand to remove a volleyball net from the Edgewater Beach Condominium in Destin, Florida. Nobody should underestimate the resolve of Suzanne Harris, the President of Edgewater. I commented upon this last week in Policyholder Advocacy and Leadership Beyond The Courtroom:

Suzanne Harris is a client of mine, and she started this legislative effort along with pushing from attorney Larry Keefe in 2005. I first met Ms. Harris following Hurricane Opal. An associate attorney did something that made her forceful Alabama voice rain down upon me. When things go well, Ms. Harris is the type of client that will do anything for you. If not, well….you just never want the "if not" to occur.

Things were not going well after some building official ordered Ms. Harris to move her condominium association’s volleyball net. She filed a lawsuit to stop it. She made public document requests to the building officials and those running the county government to find out the politics preventing people from enjoying volleyball on the beautiful white sand beaches in Destin. The County refused to turn over the documents and Ms. Harris was out to prove a point.

Eventually, the County paid over $500,000.00 to Ms. Harris’ attorneys for breaking Florida Government in the Sunshine laws, it is under Court ordered supervision to show it will comply with public records laws, it will have mandatory training of all its employees regarding public service documents and a full time employee will develop standards and methods for the proper retention of those documents for review by citizens and the press. She won the right to have a volleyball net on the beach for people to enjoy.

The Press honored this extraordinary effort as noted in Walton Woman Honored in D.C.:

A Miramar Beach woman’s fight for public records in Walton County was recognized on a national stage Monday when the American Society of News Editors presented her with its inaugural Local Heroes award.

Suzanne Harris’ lawsuit last year against Walton County officials forced them to dramatically change the way they handle public records, and her efforts earned her a trip to Washington, D.C. There, she was honored by editors from newspapers across the nation attending the 2010 ASNE convention at the J.W. Marriott Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue.

The award was presented at a luncheon by Susan Goldberg, editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, who explained that the award is designed to recognize individuals who fought to make their state or local governments more open and accessible.

“Suzanne did that and then some,” Goldberg said, recounting the settlement of the suit in which Walton County officials agreed to sweeping changes in how they keep and maintain public records and respond to requests for information.

Many may wonder, “Chip, what do public record lawsuits have to do with insurance coverage or insurance company conduct?” The answer, in part, has to do with one of the roles departments of insurance undertake when they investigate internal insurance company files in Market Conduct Studies. Insurance companies, like State Farm in Mississippi, do not want the internal files turned over as a result of public records requests. Sometimes, the Departments of Insurance fail to keep the records or refuse to turn them over. This has been an increasing issue for at least a dozen years and one which will surely rise from time to time as insurers attempt to hide from regulatory review. Successful public records lawsuits are important to a working democracy.