Pensacola, Florida
Thursday December 14th 2017

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Pensacola’s Broken Sunshine Center

By Duwayne Escobedo

Mayor Ashton Hayward said three years ago that transparency is critical to the success of Pensacola. The city website even includes a “transparency” page.

But try getting public records from the city today and you will find little transparency exists.

What does exist is a broken City of Pensacola Sunshine Center that provides incomplete results, false or misleading statements, long delays, and high-priced bills for the retrieval of even the most routine requests.

The city created the Sunshine Center in 2013 in the wake of two top members of Mayor Ashton Hayward’s staff charged with non-criminal violations. In July of 2013, State Attorney Bill Eddins charged the two with non-criminal violations of Florida’s public record laws for allegedly withholding branding and logo information.

The mayor revised the city’s public record request policy, bought software to help track and fulfill requests, and had the First Amendment Foundation’s Barbara Peterson, an expert on public records, conduct a mandatory public records seminar for city staff.

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

Fast-forward to today and little, if any, “sunshine” comes through.

In one of the latest incidents, Inweekly asked for documentation of Hayward’s authority to settle a lawsuit filed against the city by his former city administrator for over $95,000 September 2015, without city council knowledge or approval. Reynolds alleged wrongful termination. The paper received copies of the City Charter and FY2015 Comprehensive Annual Financial Statements (CAFR) and a link to the city’s code of ordinances — none of which expressly supported the mayor’s decision.

Public Records Coordinator Matt Shaud wrote Inweekly: “The volume and nature of your records request requires extensive use of personnel to process in a timely manner. The City of Pensacola has completed part of your request, and we are providing that portion to you now.”

When Inweekly Publisher Rick Outzen pressed for the release of the rest of the information, Shaud responded, “After a review of our records, the City of Pensacola has determined there are no additional records responsive to your request.”

The reply came after Inweekly had asked the State Attorney’s Office to intervene on the public record issue,  the third time since Shaud took over the Sunshine Center in late June.

Need more examples? Consider the following.

In August 2016, the Inweekly requested: “Any emails, reports, letters and other documentation regarding the Local Option Gas Tax, which also could be referred to as Local Option Fuel Tax, for the period Jan. 1, 2013 through Feb. 28, 2013.”

The weekly was charged $56.46 for the Monthly Financial Review Dec 2012; Financial Report-3 Months Ending Dec 30, 2012; Council Meeting Minutes; Proposed Local Option Gasoline Tax; and 26 emails. The emails included a draft of a white paper on the Local Option Gas Tax and a possible interlocal agreement with Escambia County that would have helped fund VT-MAE at the Pensacola International Airport. Chief of Staff John Asmar sent it to Chief Financial Officer Dick Barker on Feb. 21, 2013.

The city sent the draft report but not the final report that had been sent minutes later to Mayor Hayward, his executive assistant, and Barker. The report revealed, among other things, the conclusion by Barker that the county would likely reduce the gas tax allocation to the city based on its declining funding of transportation projects. That’s exactly what the county did this summer. Barker acted surprised about the lower allocation, and Hayward filed an appeal with the Florida Cabinet.

Assistant Fire Chief Joe Glover, whom the mayor terminated in May along with Fire Chief Matt Schmitt, submitted a public record request in January for documents related to his EEOC complaint against the city. The day the city put him on leave, Glover received a quote from the Sunshine Center for $15,234.79 for 810 hours of research, which is the equal to eight-hour days every weekday for about five months.

Finally, former Pensacola City Council President Maren DeWeese has run into trouble requesting public records, too. She is now a city watchdog and reports her findings on Maren’s Blog Dot Biz.

DeWeese asked for routine information regarding the Southwest Airlines emergency landing at Pensacola International Airport on Aug. 27, which had made national news. She requested information on the fire engines that responded, manpower on each engine, ARFF units responding and manpower on each, response times, time on scene, and the name of the on-scene commander. The incident report included all but two of the items she requested.

Pensacola Sunshine Center’s Shaud sent DeWeese an invoice for $555.19.

DeWeese speculated on her blog that it was done to “discourage her uncovering the failures of the City of Pensacola Fire Department’s emergency responses and exposing just how unsafe our airport fire safety is?”

Both the Inweekly and DeWeese have claimed that recent requests reveal that some public records may have been either destroyed or deliberately withheld. Both are violations of Florida law.

“The SAO doesn’t want to prosecute politicians. It’s uncomfortable. I understand,” DeWeese wrote. “But when do the repeated violations of the Mayor’s office regarding public records reach the point where the SAO’s filter is full?”

Mayor Hayward may want to dust off the State Attorney’s Office report in 2013 on the city’s past public record failures. He could bring back the First Amendment Foundation to do an independent audit of the Sunshine Center and make recommendations.