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Thursday July 24th 2014

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City of Pensacola failed to timely respond to public record requests

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.