Jeremy's Notebook

Pensacola Calls on Open-Government Guru

July 10, 2013

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.

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  • Steve Sharp July 10, 2013 at 9:37 pm

    I thought Mr. Cosson was an expert of the Florida Sunshine Law, why do they need to bring in an outside agency to correct this? Why are the taxpayers of Pensacola paying for Mr. Cosson’s salary if he can’t perfrom his job?

  • CJ Lewis July 10, 2013 at 9:06 am

    Having been on the receiving end of what I belatedly learned was an incomplete public records response from Hayward, in which I had asked for all documents (“legal opinions”) related to Hayward’s nonsensical assertion that the Charter does not require him “to attend all meetings of the City Council,” I hope he shows a hint of leadership in his final days in office by no longer using his private Yahoo e-mail account to conduct the public business of the city out-of-the-Sunshine.

    In this case, the city government is rotting from the head down. Moreover, it’s incredibly ironic that the person arguably the most secretive mayor in the history of Pensacola, Ashton “Catch Me If You Can” Hayward, is now pontificating about his insistence on transparency. The fact that the City Council is sitting on its hands doing and saying nothing further reinforces the point that no legislative branch oversight equals no executive branch accountability.

    Lastly, I agree with Councilman Larry Johnson that the Council needs to be made even smaller than the projected seven members (in 2016) and urge him to propose another Charter amendment further reducing the size of the Council to just five members all newly elected during the 2014 election.