TALLAHASSEE (AP) — TaMaryn Waters walked into the Jefferson County School District offices with a simple request: She wanted a copy of the most recent e-mail the superintendent sent school board members about the district budget.
But it wasn’t so simple. What she found was a staff that was confused and suspicious and a superintendent who didn’t understand public record laws. Waters never told them who she was, but a week later the superintendent’s secretary called her and admitted the staff tracked her down by running her license plate number.
“This seems like an awful lot of trouble to go through to find out who a person is because they asked for an e-mail,” Waters said recently. “They have my address and everything. For what? Because I asked for an e-mail.”
While Waters’ experience was extreme, an audit organized by the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors shows that many school districts, sheriff’s offices and county administrative offices don’t understand how they should respond to public records requests even though the state constitution and law clearly requires access with minimal restrictions.
Under Florida law, anyone can request a public record for any reason and expect to get it, no questions asked. But in reality, what residents face are confused public employees and questions: Who are you? Why do you want this? Can you put your request in writing?
FSNE sent reporters from Florida newspapers and The Associated Press plus volunteers from Florida universities to 56 of Florida’s 67 counties. They walked into 163 school, administrative and sheriff’s offices last month and asked for e-mails about the budget. Many were told that the superintendent, administrator or sheriff didn’t send e-mails on the budget. In those cases, auditors were instructed to ask for the latest correspondence or written record related to the budget.
Almost 43 percent of the offices failed to comply with the law either because they required a name, reason or written request or because they weren’t able to reasonably produce a record.
“It’s unacceptable. Citi-zens are more and more frustrated with government and how it works and when they feel they’re not going to have a smooth process, it discourages them from utilizing what is their right,” said Mark Tomasik, editor of Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers and president of the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors. “Organizations like FSNE and AP and all the newsrooms throughout Florida will continue to make this a priority in our coverage.”
In many cases, auditors were told no one was available who could help them and to come back another time. Some were sent directly to top officials, and still met a dead end.
Gary Fineout, a former reporter for The Miami Herald who was hired by The Associated Press to go to several north Florida counties, was told he had to talk directly to Hamilton County Sheriff
Harrell Reid about his request for the budget e-mail or memo. Reid told Fineout he could have whatever record he wanted, but it had to be put it in writing. But he also said the records Fineout was looking for didn’t exist.
In Clay County, the sheriff’s office requested Fineout’s name and a telephone number. Two days later, he received a letter from the department’s attorney saying no such record existed.
“I just gave my name and a cell phone number. I gave no other information,” Fineout said. “In order to find out who I was, somebody had to do a little bit of checking.”
His experience outraged Barbara Petersen, president of the open government watchdog group First Amendment Foundation and the chair of a commission on open government formed by Gov. Charlie Crist.
“How much do you think it costs to have the lawyer write a letter to Gary Fineout?” Petersen asked. “Why do they go to all that effort because someone makes a public records request? And then to have the attorney write him a letter! It’s such a simple thing.”
The problem wasn’t just limited to smaller, rural counties. The sheriff’s offices and school district offices in Miami-Dade, Broward and Duval counties all failed to comply with the law, as did the
Orange, Palm Beach and Pinellas county sheriff’s offices. Overall, county administrative offices were the best at providing records, with only about a quarter failing to comply with the law. Sheriff’s offices were the worst, with more than 60 percent failing to comply.
While less than 1 in 3 checks produced an e-mail, most auditors reported people they dealt with were cooperative, indicating a willingness to help, but a lack of knowledge of records laws.
“It’s often the ones that meet and greet the public who don’t know what the law is. They ask for a name or ask for something to be put in writing because they don’t know they’re inadvertently breaking the law,” said JoAnn Carrin, who runs Crist’s Office of Open Government.
More training will help, but Carrin acknowledged that some agencies, particularly in tight budget years, may not see open government training as important.
“Is it a critical mission for the agency? Responding to the public should be,” she said. “We work for the public. We work for the people. It should be a priority.”
Waters, who is an education reporter for the Tallahassee Democrat, usually doesn’t have a problem getting records in her professional role. So she was surprised at what happened when she asked for records as if she were just a regular citizen.
Jefferson County School Superintendent Phil Barker asked Waters who she was. Waters asked him if she had to give her name to get the record.
“Well, I don’t know. I think so,” Barker said.
Barker’s secretary, Shirley Cannon, readily admits she doesn’t understand open government laws, and that Waters’ request caught her off guard.
“When she came in and she didn’t identify herself, it seemed kind of suspicious. These days you’ve got to be careful,” Cannon said, explaining why her license plate was run. “We did that out of just safety precautions.” “I meant no disrespect to her. I didn’t intend to break the law,” said Cannon, who added that she wants open government training and that newly elected Superintendent Bill Brumfield hopes to provide it to his staff.
Cannon said if Waters had just let her know she was a reporter, she would have been glad to help. “I would have knocked myself out to make sure she got it.”
That’s the problem. The laws are meant to benefit everybody, not just the media.
“I was just a regular person asking for an e-mail, but I feel like if I had come in there as TaMaryn Waters, an education reporter for the Tallahassee Democrat, I would have gotten it,” Waters said. “It was a totally different response and that’s just not right.”