One First Amendment expert called the bills “a barrier to the public’s right of access,” while another said the costs are substantiated.
Panama City News Herald by John Henderson
August 18, 2017
Experts on public records law are split on whether the Panama City Beach City Council was justified in charging people thousands of dollars to process requests for city emails.
Barbara Petersen, the executive director of the Florida First Amendment Foundation, said in an email that the charges “seem excessive.”
“They are, in effect, a barrier to the public’s right of access,” she wrote. “Who has $7,000 to pay for some emails? Not me, and not most Floridians. 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.’”
However, Pat Gleason, a mediator for the Florida Attorney General’s office who specializes in public records cases, informed the city in a mediation case that the city’s charges for the emails were “substantiated.”
The dispute stems from recent requests made by multiple area residents for various records of PCB city employees. Colleen Swab, owner of California Cycles, on July 24 requested all of Councilman Hector Solis’ 3,439 emails since taking office and received an invoice for $4,388. Linda Hardin submitted the same request to the city and received the same invoice statement as Swab on Aug. 4.
The city also is charging Melba Hall $6,956 to satisfy her public records request for 5,404 of former City Clerk Diane Floyd’s emails since January, estimating it would take 10,808 minutes to process that request at a clip of two minutes per email.
Gleason came to her conclusion after the city asked Jo Smith, assistant to the city manager, to see how many of Hall’s requested emails she could get through in an hour while redacting exempt information. Smith redacted 36, which consisted of 265 pages of documents including confidential checking account information and insurance claim information for pending litigation.
Based on that experiment, the city issued an invoice indicating it would cost $6,956 to satisfy Hall’s full request.
Hall, who could not be reached for comment, contacted the Attorney General’s office, and Gleason was assigned the mediation case.
Gleason also advised giving Hall the emails processed during the test run for free.
Floyd recently resigned as city clerk, citing the workload from having to handle the recent deluge of public records requests on top of her regular job duties as a factor for her departure. The Beach council recently voted to hire a human resources director to free up time for the new clerk to handle the public records requests. [READ MORE]