A statewide audit by Florida newspapers shows most local and state agencies respond efficiently — and in some cases thoroughly — to simple public records requests, although the cost for similar records varied widely and some agencies failed to respond at all.
Throughout the last year, some newspapers and private citizens have encountered jaw-dropping fees for records such as a $399,000 quote to search a year’s worth of a South Florida police agency’s emails for gay slurs, a $45,000 estimate for a database of complaint and disciplinary records involving North Florida police offices, and a $700 estimate for Ebola reports in a state where there were no documented cases of Ebola.
Sometimes it’s not the cost, but the time it takes to produce the records that raised concerns.
The State Attorney in the 4th Judicial Circuit serving the Jacksonville area took four months to produce a simple phone directory, and the Broward County Sheriff’s Office said it would take four years to fulfill the gay slur email search.
While agencies often are accustomed to responding to requests from media, members of the public throughout Florida also can encounter large fees and long wait times, said Barbara Petersen, president of the Tallahassee-based First Amendment Foundation.
She pointed out citizens often don’t have the resources of a media organization to fight for the records.
“And it’s become more and more of a problem,” she said. “You guys made public records requests as reporters, the average citizen typically has a different response, frequently enough to be of concern. We have seen over the years a dramatic increase of the cost of gaining access to public records and an increase in the time for an agency to produce those records.”
An appellate court awarded local citizen watchdog Curtis Lee more than $75,000 after a dispute with the Jacksonville Police and Fire Pension Fund about public records costs after he was told in 2009 it would cost him $326 before he could simply review documents that were sitting on a table at the pension fund office. The ruling is being appealed to the Florida Supreme Court.
Peterson said she always assumed that when government agencies became mostly computerized it would become easier and cheaper for the public to obtain records. Instead, she’s seen it become more difficult and more expensive.
But Peterson said she couldn’t say the high fees and long wait times were an intentional strategy to block the public’s access.
“I can’t say that it’s a strategy,” she said. “But it’s certainly an effective mechanism to thwart our constitutional rights to access. It’s a barrier.”
Frank Denton, editor of the Times-Union and president of the Florida Society of News Editors, had similar concerns.
“Whether the high charges and long delays are deliberate attempts to block reasonable public — and press — access or to generate revenue for the office, they certainly violate the spirit and purpose of the law, which is to allow citizens to inspect their governments,” Denton said. “Public agencies should have built into their staffing and functions the ability to deal with and respond to the public.”
As part of the audit, 10 Florida newspapers reviewed how agencies throughout the state respond to records request. The newspapers asked for the same records in each part of the state from police agencies, school superintendents, mayors, county administrators and elected state attorneys. The newspapers paid close attention to cost and delivery time estimates.
A similar audit was done for state agencies.
The audit is a nonpartisan, national effort to highlight the importance of the public’s right to inspect and obtain public records. The public’s access to records such as emails and investigative reports is one mechanism citizens have to hold government accountable. The two-week campaign was initiated by the Florida Society of News Editors with help from the First Amendment Foundation.
The exercise showed that agencies throughout the state vary widely on whether they charge and how much they charge for similar types of records. A lot of the cost difference was driven by how long each agency said it would take to go through records to redact potentially exempted material.
For instance, a request for a week’s worth of Duval County Superintendent Nikolai Vita’s emails — about 3,400 of them — from early January would cost a member of the public an estimated $1,485. But for about 2,000 of Lee County Superintendent Nancy Graham’s emails from the same January week, the cost would be $438.90.
The key difference is how long the districts said it would take to go through the emails. The Duval district estimated it could review about 53 emails an hour at $21.53 an hour, whereas Lee officials estimated they could go through about 121 emails an hour for $26.60 an hour.
“That’s what I’m talking about, the lack of efficiency,” Peterson said. “Why does it take 64 hours to review those emails? It’s absurd.”
Of the 45 Florida agencies or public officials contacted by newspapers, all but a few responded quickly and some even provided records immediately and for free. Only three officials or agencies did not respond or acknowledge some portion of the requests within two weeks.
Those three agencies or officials were the Okaloosa County Administrator, the Walton County Administrator and the 4th Circuit State Attorney’s Office that serves the Jacksonville area. Another handful of agencies acknowledged receipt of the request but failed to provide the records or an estimate of cost and hourly rate within two weeks.
In Bay County, the four agencies from which records were sought complied under the letter of the law.
Lynn Haven officials agreed to produce the documents, but said it could take one to two weeks. They said they could not provide an estimated charge until they had gathered the records, and said the process could be sped up if something specific was being sought.
The State Attorney’s Office made the emails available and said it would take a little extra time to include attachments. It did not seek payment.
Panama City police also produced the documents, but said they were not available in a digital form and there was a per-page charge as allowed under the public records law.
Bay District Schools initially said there might be a charge because of the time required to redact students’ names and other information protected by law. But after officials checked the documents they contacted the News Herald and said there would be no charge.
Agencies are often inundated with public records requests.
The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office receives large volumes of requests from citizens and local media on a daily basis for records and reports about crimes and accidents in the community. Those inquiries are largely handled quickly and without delay.
Jason Parsley, a former president of Florida’s Society of Professional Journalists and the executive editor for South Florida Gay News, made a request last year to have every Broward County sheriff’s deputy’s emails searched for gay slurs over a five-month period. He included specific terms.
The sheriff’s office told him it would cost $399,000, take four years and a dedicated staffer.
Peterson said the Broward sheriff’s office may be violating law if it is maintaining its records in a way that requires so much labor to comply with a request such as Parsley’s.
Sometimes there’s a debate on whether records are considered public.
Original article here.