Pensacola

City of Pensacola failed to timely respond to public record requests

July 5, 2013

In our article “The Upside of Corruption,” I failed to mentioned the State Attorney’s findings and recommendations regarding the Hayward administration handling of public records. We had limited space available in the paper, which give us just enough room to go over the misdeeds on the seventh floor of city hall.

Prior to Ashton Hayward taking office, this paper had few issues with public records and city government. I can’t remember an incident when we weren’t given records on a timely basis. That has not been the case, especially since the first of this year.

Here are the SAO findings and recommendations:

This office has received a number of complaints from various individuals alleging possible violations of the Florida Public Records Law by the City of Pensacola.

As a result of these complaints, we have conducted a thorough investigation lasting several months. During the course of this investigation, we have interviewed numerous witnesses, reviewed e-mails and other documents and researched the applicable law.

Based on our investigation, we have determined that the City has failed to adequately or timely respond to public records requests.
In this report, we make certain recommendations to the City to avoid these problems in the future. We have met with various City officials to discuss these recommendations.

They have indicated that they accept these recommendations and are in the process of implementing these changes.

FAILURE TO TIMELY RESPOND TO PUBLIC RECORDS REQUESTS

Several of the complaints we have received allege that the City has failed to timely respond to public records request. The Florida Public Records Law requires that all requests be responded to in good faith.

The Florida Supreme Court has interpreted this to require that records must be produced within a reasonable time. No set time is established but is determined by the extent and nature of each individual request.

The City, like other governmental agencies, receives numerous public records requests.

These requests come from the media, private citizens, as well as City officials. These requests are made through the City Clerk who then forwards them to the appropriate employees. If the request involves e-mails or other computer documents, the request is also sent to the IT Department. Once the records are located, individual employees are responsible for reviewing these documents to remove exempt materials.

In one case we reviewed, 82 different city employees were required to review e-mails to remove exempt materials. By its very nature, this leads to unreasonable delays in responding to public records request.

Our investigation also indicates that inadequate resources are provided to the City
Clerk to respond to public records request in a timely manner. It is also clear that City employees need additional training in the area of public records law. Finally, a better tracking system should be implemented to insure that public records requests are being handled in an appropriate manner.

For these reasons, we make the following recommendations to the City of Pensacola:

1. That outside training be brought in to train city employees regarding the Florida Public Records Law.

2. That the City Clerk be provided adequate resources to timely respond to public records requests.

3. That current policies dealing with public records be reviewed and changed or amended to ensure full compliance with the public record laws.

4. That adequate tracking procedures be developed to see that public records requests are responded to in a timely manner.

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  • steve July 8, 2013 at 10:43 am

    Mr CJ Lewis’ responses seem to be well thought-out and provide a solution to various issues but they all seem to be geared around the council exercising some authority which it seems clear they are unwilling to do or perhaps not able to do by statute (city charter). I don’t know which it is but the result is that the council is not challenging the Mayor’s office’s authority. So does Mr Lewis have another course of action to recommend given the council’s weak position in dictating the direction of Pcola gov’t?

    Again I appreciate reading his take on the situation but nobody’s pursuing the council taking action so what are some other options for the layman to get involved?

  • jeeperman July 8, 2013 at 9:04 am

    Wendy,
    The Mayor is not gonna do what you suggest if he is the one that directed them to do what they did.

  • Wendy LaBarge July 7, 2013 at 10:06 am

    Thanks to Rick Outzen & the IN for shedding light on the seamy underbelly of our City Hall’s political machine and introducing us to its lying, scheming Cardinal Richelieu, Bill Reynolds, and his ambitious lackey of many names, Cosson aka Stricklen, CJ, Sandy, Rachel, Heather and God knows who else. They and their “non-criminal” machinations are just another embarassing and shameful pox on the City and Hayward’s administration. If the Mayor wastes another minute and another scintilla of his political cred (what’s left of it) before showing these two thugs the door, then there’s no doubt that there’s more to the “Upside” debacle. Do what’s right for our City, Mayor, and revoke Cosson’s email access, change the locks on Reynold’s office, and give these two power hungrey goons their pink slips…if you can.

  • Sara Beard July 6, 2013 at 1:13 am

    Additionally, I made a similar request a year later. I was told that it would cost me $180.56 for 4-6 hours of work to retrieve the records from 3 email accounts. I paid 20 cents for the first request.

  • Sara Beard July 6, 2013 at 1:09 am

    I made a public records request on Dec 19, 2011, and it was finally fulfilled on January 27, 2012. In my request I specifically stated that I wanted *all* communication available for public record between a list of named people and departments. Pat McMichael (who I believe works in MIS) stated in an email to Sherry Posey, “This could be a big one if I actually search all the mailboxes in each department. I think initially I’ll stick with the named people.” I never pressed the issue, but clearly that is not all that I requested.

  • jeeperman July 5, 2013 at 12:17 pm

    exactly what “case” required 82 different employees to review and exempt content?

  • CJ Lewis July 5, 2013 at 11:53 am

    Ultimately, the blame belongs to the Council that can but will not set up safeguards in the Code of Ordinances creating a clear process for the completion of public records requests. A majority of this Council appears to agree with Councilman Wu’s view that they are powerless and must do whatever Mayor Hayward tells them to do. As a practical matter, the biggest problem is that no City officer or employee to include the City Clerk has the authority to make anyone working in City Hall respond, let alone respond fully and in a timely manner, to public records requests. The culture of secrecy seeps into every crevice of City Hall. A powerless City Clerk Ericka Burnett told me that all she can do is forward the public records requests to others. Her role is limited to like that of a postal clerk. The only way to make anyone in City Hall comply with a public records request is to file a complaint with the State Attorney’s Office and hope it takes action.

    Further, making matters worse, many, to include Hayward, openly circumvent the public records law conducting public business using private e-mail accounts or text messages not retained. The Council can prohibit this practice but will not, perhaps because so many of them do the same. Many of the public records requests are likely initiated by Council members just trying to figure out what is happening behind the wall of secrecy erected by Hayward inside City Hall. In other cities, Council members are much better informed because the Mayor is not afraid to have them deal with, i.e. have “contact” with, City officers and employees. In clear violation of the Charter, and guidance in the Model City Charter used by the Charter Review Commission, a secretive Hayward has prohibited such contact and a majority of Council members is unwilling to challenge his denial of their existing authority to ask questions of city staff, to include on behalf of their constituents.

    Some cities formally deal with the need for their Council to have the information it needs to exercise its legislative authority to include the provision of constituent services. As example, Section 4.05.(b)(2) of the St. Petersburg Charter prescribes, “The Council or any member thereof may request information of the Mayor or the Mayors’ subordinates in a form that presently exists and could be obtained by a public record request under Florida law, subject to such reasonable regulations of use as City Council may prescribe by ordinance or resolution from time to time.” At any time, the Council can adopt similar or more expansive language by ordinance or resolution, or ask voters to approve it as a Charter amendment, but they are unable and/or unwilling to do so.