Panama City News Herald Editorial
August 22, 2017
A public record by any other name still is a public record. But public records requests aren’t always simple.
There are caveats to protect private information, such as Social Security numbers. There are costs to review and redact exempt information. There are more costs when a request is deemed unduly burdensome — such as one seeking every police report an agency generated over six months. How much an agency can charge to produce the records depends on its cost in time and personnel to gather, review and redact non-public information.
So while a public record is public, it is not always free, and making voluminous requests for “fishing expeditions” or in an attempt to embarrass someone is not productive and can get expensive.
At the same time, no agency should be hell-bent on documenting every second spent fulfilling a request to make the cost as high as possible, nor should an agency charge an exorbitant amount just because someone thinks it’s frivolous or orchestrated.
But it appears that is what’s happening in Panama City Beach — on both sides — and it’s led to a split even among those who monitor and enforce public records laws. Multiple requests have hit the city recently, including one seeking all 5,404 of the former city clerk’s emails since January, which incurred a $6,596 estimate.
The fees “are, in effect, a barrier to the public’s right of access,” Barbara Petersen, executive director of the Florida First Amendment Foundation, wrote last week to The News Herald. “The law requires that all fees must be reasonable. Is it reasonable to expect a citizen to shell out $7,000 for a bunch of emails? I say, ‘No, it’s not.’”
Another request sought 3,439 emails sent or received by one councilman since he took office more than a year ago. The city invoiced for $4,388, saying it had to review each one for exempt information.
In that case, however, the matter went to mediation with the Florida Attorney General’s office, and Pat Gleason, who specializes in public records cases for the office, sided with the city, saying the charges were “substantiated.” [READ MORE]