Pensacola, Florida
Tuesday May 22nd 2018


Pensacola’s Public Records Remedy

City and County Struggle With Open Government
By Jeremy Morrison

Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward has often stressed transparency. He stressed it again after the State Attorney charged the mayor’s city administrator and press secretary with non-criminal public records violations.

“Transparency is critical to the success of our city,” Hayward said in a statement.

Just before the Fourth of July holiday weekend, City Administrator Bill Reynolds and Press Secretary Derek Cosson were charged for failing to fulfill a records request last summer involving the yet-unveiled city logo provided by the Zimmerman Agency marketing firm. The State Attorney’s Office noted that it had received numerous complaints regarding possible public-record law violations and outlined steps to be taken toward remedying such issues.

In addition to firing Reynolds—who was also found to have leaked confidential employee information pertaining to former Chief of Staff John Asmar to Hayward-nemesis, former city councilwoman and current mayoral candidate Maren DeWeese at World of Beer—the mayor has also laid out some measures the city will take toward redemption.

“It is my goal to reinforce excellence as a part of our culture when it comes to fulfilling public records requests,” Hayward said in his statement, “and I remain steadfast in my insistence on transparency in my administration.”

Dragging Feet, Under the Gun

Attorney Alistair McKenzie makes a lot of public records requests. He makes requests of private corporations, state agencies and counties.

“All of them respond to my public records requests within 10 days,” McKenzie said. “I’ve never had one take more than two weeks.”

The attorney also files requests with the city of Pensacola. He wasn’t too surprised when the news of the State Attorney’s charges broke. He calls the situation with the city an “endemic problem.”

“There’s this huge pattern of delay,” McKenzie said. “There’s just this enormous dragging of feet and delaying going on.”

The attorney—who has represented several clients in lawsuits against the city—said he has one request that is about four and a half months old, while another was made seven months ago. McKenzie’s concerns are among the “number of complaints” received by the State Attorney’s Office.

One of McKenzie’s clients, Pensacola City Councilwoman Sherri Myers, is also familiar with the city’s public records process. She says she is required to make the requests because the city doesn’t willingly share information with council.

“The only club I have is to make open records requests,” Myers explained. “That, they have to do and they don’t even do it, really.”

The councilwoman cited several of her requests—one made during a public meeting— that have been lingering.

“I’ve got a record that’s been out for a year and a half that I’ve finally just given up on,” Myers said.

McKenzie said he’s hopeful that the measures the city plans to take will improve its public records practices.

“I think with the pressure the State Attorney is putting on them, they’re under the gun,” he said.

Fixing City Hall

City Clerk Ericka Burnett can’t say how many outstanding record requests there currently are. It’s not that she won’t say. She can’t say. There’s no system in place to track such information.

That’s why she sounds excited when she talks about the new software the city will soon begin using.

“It’s going to be a lot better,” Burnett said. “We’re not going to be in the dark ages.”

The State Attorney noted such issues, advising that the city provide the clerk with “adequate resources to timely respond to public records requests.” To that end, the city is contracting with GovQA and will begin employing the company’s open records management software.

According to Communications Director Tamara Fountain, software for this purpose was a budgeted item in the city clerk’s FY2013 budget; there’s a $4,000 base fee, plus a $395 monthly subscription cost. The decision was apparently made last month—prior to the State Attorney’s charges—to purchase the software.

“This software will allow the city to track all records requests, to implement workflows to ensure requests are properly routed and coordinated, and to run regular reports which will allow staff to instantaneously see the status of open requests,” Fountain explained in an email. “The software will also provide a web portal where citizens will be able to submit their requests directly.”

The software the city will be employing is the same software used by Escambia County, as well as the city of Ocala. Fountain said the software will be rolled out internally by the end of July, with external features, such as the web portal, up by the end of August.

In addition to the new software, Mayor Hayward has also reached out to the First Amendment Foundation. He’s inviting the organization to town to educate city employees about Florida’s public records law.

The First Amendment Foundation (FAF) deals with open-government and transparency issues throughout the state. The organization works with citizens, the media and government. It conducts seminars and symposiums and fields a hotline.

“We deal with nothing but open government,” said Barbara Petersen, president of FAF. “We’re kinda like the open government experts.”

Petersen will make it to town in mid-August. She 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, and that we spend three to four hours in each one,” Petersen explained, adding that she would also like to see a session that is open to the public.

FAF has made trips to the area before. Petersen recalled a forum sponsored by the Pensacola News Journal, as well as some work with the Escambia County School District.

The foundation president was not yet familiar with the local charges that triggered her most recent invitation, but said the Pensacola area is familiar territory for open-government advocates in general. She pointed to recent state legislation pertaining to open meetings that stemmed from a local case involving the Community Maritime Park Associates Board.

“Pensacola and Escambia County kind of stand out as problems,” Petersen said.

Escambia’s ‘Egregious’ Requests

As the city works to address the concerns of the State Attorney, officials over at the county offices have also begun discussing public records.

“The problem is, as of late, there seems to be a lot of interesting characters making public records requests,” said Escambia County Commission Chairman Gene Valentino. “And some of them don’t even know what they’re looking for.”

The chairman bemoaned what he considers to be “absolutely egregious” requests. He said a pattern had developed over the past year or so, and that the requests amounted to “fishing” by “trolls.”

“I don’t know if we can deny anyone a pubic records request,” cautioned Commissioner Grover Robinson.

County Attorney Alison Rogers agreed—“you can’t stop ’em”—but assured the chairman a policy was in place to allow the county to charge fees for the requests.

“I thought they were rather subjective about how they were being used,” Valentino said.

Interim County Administrator George Touart—also expressing displeasure about the volume of requests—told the chairman that he was making sure that the fees were being charged. He recounted a recent request for videos of a budget meeting—a request made by this newspaper—and how he found it to be of an excessive nature and had insisted a fee be imposed.

The Independent News had requested the videos for the July 9 and July 10 meetings. Touart told the commissioners he found it to be of an excessive nature and had insisted a fee be imposed. The paper paid $50 for five discs, which also included the meeting where Touart made those comments.

“When we do that (charge fees), guess what?” Touart said. “People start backing off when they find out how much it’s going to cost.”

The interim county administrator apparently doesn’t know this paper very well.