October 30, 2017
Over the weekend, the First Amendment Foundation (FAF) sent a strongly worded letter to Tallahassee City Attorney Lewis B. Shelley requesting that he perform a thorough investigation into the process by which city employees attempted to comply with a public records request that resulted in the city withholding records requested by the Tallahassee Democrat.
We don’t think it an overstatement to say the City of Tallahassee is in peril and its citizens are losing confidence in their government. The only way to regain that confidence and change the climate within city hall is through transparency and accountability, not obfuscation and secrecy.
The Democrat was able to obtain copies of text messages sent and received by City Manager Fernandez after the Florida Commission on Ethics subpoenaed a lobbyist for the texts as part of an investigation into a complaint filed against Fernandez.
In the text exchange, City Manager Fernandez asked the lobbyist for four tickets to an upcoming FSU football game. According to the Democrat report, the box seat tickets were worth about $2,000. It should be noted that in previous interviews, Fernandez had denied receiving football tickets from the lobbyist.
The text messages, in which City Manager Fernandez solicited a valuable gift from a lobbyist who regularly represents his clients before the city, are directly related to evidence of the City Manager’s professional judgment and his ability to perform the duties of his job. Those text messages, ultimately obtained by the Democrat, also directly contradict earlier public statements made by Fernandez and raise serious questions about his veracity.
The text messages at issue are public records regardless whether Mr. Fernandez sent or received those messages on his private communication device. When the City received the request from Mr. Burlew, the City had the affirmative duty to thoroughly search for the requested records. Was City Manager Fernandez asked if he had text messages responsive to the request? If Fernandez was not asked, the City was derelict in its constitutional duty to provide access to public records and may be in violation of Florida’s public records law.
If Mr. Fernandez was asked and he denied having the requested records, Mr. Fernandez has certainly violated the law.