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Thursday July 24th 2014

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Pensacola Calls on Open-Government Guru

The city of Pensacola is turning to the First Amendment Foundation in an effort to address issues with its public records process.

“We deal with nothing but open government,” said Barbara Petersen, president of FAF. “We’re kinda like the open government experts.”

Last week, the State Attorney charged two of Mayor Ashton Hayward’s top staffers with non-criminal public records violations. This week, the mayor has announced measures to deal with the city’s public records issues.

In addition to purchasing new software to better track and fill requests, Hayward said he is looking to FAF to “help with extensive training with our employees.”

“It is my goal to reinforce excellence as a part of our culture when it comes to fulfilling public records requests,” the mayor said in a statement, “and I remain steadfast in my insistence on transparency in my administration.”

The First Amendment Foundation deals with open-government and transparency issues throughout the state of Florida. The organization works with citizens, the media and government; it conducts seminars and symposiums and fields a hotline.

“We’ve got our hands full, believe me,” Petersen said.

The FAF president said that City Communications Director Tamara Fountain contacted her last week. Petersen plans to run city employees through sessions pertaining to both public records and open meetings.

“What I’m recommending to the city is that we do two separate sessions,” she explained, “and that we spend three to four hours in each one.”

There may also be a third session, open to the public.

Although she’s not yet familiar with the episode that led to the public record charges last week, Petersen said she is familiar with the area. The FAF president has worked in the Pensacola area before—she recalled a forum sponsored by the Pensacola News Journal, as well as some work with the Escambia County School District.

Petersen also noted that the area has a reputation in the state. She pointed out that recent legislation pertaining to open meetings stemmed from a local case involving the Community Maritime Park Associates board.

“Pensacola and Escambia County kind of stand out as problems,” she said.

Petersen said she expected to conduct her sessions with the city in August.

“There’s a lot of responsibility on government and they’ve gotta do it right,” Petersen said.