You may have read today from Mike Mayo about the peculiar case of Michael Butler in Hallandale Beach. Seems Butler put in a public records request to see the recipients of an email from Hallandale Mayor Joy Cooper that was sent from her personal email account.
The email sent from Cooper's AOL account in February was marked "Mayor Cooper's Update" and concerned columns she'd written about city politics. Emails from public officials concerning city business are a matter of public record, no matter where they came from. Otherwise, politicians could totally subvert the state Sunshine Laws by doing all their business from an AOL account.
Remember that former Hollywood Mayor Mara Giulianti was pulling that stunt during the sludge scandal that ended in a jury conviction at trial for Commissioner Keith Wasserstrom. Her personal computer mysteriously went missing, while Wasserstrom had some mysterious "repair" work done on his computers.
Anyway, instead of giving Butler the public records, the city sued him. Cooper told Mayo that the request from Butler made her feel like her "privacy was raped."
And the city has apparently won the case at the Broward County Courthouse.
Simply outrageous, but it was the judge in the case, Patti Englander Henning, that really got me thinking. Henning is the same judge who sided with the city in another horrible court case in which a man's
homestead rights were trampled. Talk about being raped; Aristides Pelecanos was hit with $3 million in code enforcement fees and Henning ruled in the city's favor over and over again, whether the law supported her or not.
Mayor Cooper was deeply involved in that one too -- she was one of the complainants against Pelecanos for having an unkempt house. Here's a passage from an August 23, 2007, story about the case:
Pelecanos says that Henning, who didn't return my phone calls for comment, seemed to be dead-set against him from the beginning.
In October 2002, Henning held him in contempt of court for not complying with her orders to fix the house. At the city's behest, the judge then ordered Pelecanos to sell the house. That would seem to be in violation of the homestead exemption, which forbids such forced sales, but soon it would become obvious that the judge in this case had lost touch with the law.
Later that year, Henning granted the city permission to demolish the house -- at Pelecanos' expense -- even though it had no structural problems. When Pelecanos argued against it, Henning threatened to throw him in jail if he tried to stop the bulldozers.
Do you see? Henning tried to force the sale of the house -- illegally -- and then put an unlawful lien against the house. Thank goodness for Pelecanos that there was an appellate court that could read the law. It reversed Henning's ruling and added, for good measure, that "the courts of this state have long emphasized that the homestead exemption is to be liberally construed in the interest of protecting the family home."
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So Henning, who is the sister of Broward tourism czar Nikki Grossman, trampled the nearly sacred homestead law in Florida, and now she's doing the same to the state's Sunshine Law. And both cases involve Mayor Joy Cooper and the seemingly demented City of Hallandale Beach.
Both cases amount to outrageous Kafkaesque nightmares for the lone individuals at the bottom of them. And I'm left wondering: Is Henning just a terrible judge all the time, or does she have some kind of tie with Cooper or other city officials in Hallandale that brings out the tyrant in her?
Understand, if this kind of thing can happen to Pelecanos and Butler, it can sure as hell happen to you too. That's why people who give a damn about the rule of law should take action. And here's what you can do: Send a public records request to the City of Hallandale Beach asking for the same record that Michael Butler asked for -- the AOL email and its recipients titled "Mayor Cooper's Update" regarding her writings on city business. It'll show solidarity and give the city a headache, if nothing else.
And then we can go from there.