Searching for public records can be costly work. For instance, Miami-Dade requested nearly $22,000 to search nine days worth of correspondence and emails for the group seeking to tighten rules on county campaign donations.
Juan Cuba, an activist helping the petition effort, last week requested email correspondence, telephone logs, letters and text messages from Mayor Carlos Gimenez, county commissioners, county attorneys and the elections chief from between Aug. 1 and Aug. 9. On Tuesday, a spokeswoman for the County Commission wrote Cuba to with a cost estimate for IT workers to complete the search.
“Your public records request will require 150 searches which will take 300 hours to complete at the rate of ITD personnel, $72 per hour, for a total cost of $21,600,” write Griselle Marino, head of media relations for the County Commission. Marino wrote that after the search, another lengthy process would begin to see which documents the county wants to keep confidential.
“However, please note that all documents resulting from the search will have to be sorted and grouped by ITD, so that they can be provided to the applicable County Departments for review for the presence of exempt and/or confidential information,” Marino wrote in the Tuesday email.
Cuba, executive director of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party, said the proposed fee stunned him, given the specific and narrow request he made in terms of time and county officials.
“I was like: Are you kidding me,” he said. “I didn’t ask them for anything complicated.”
Cuba is on the advisory board of Accountable Miami-Dade, a union-backed group pushing new limitations on campaign contributions in the county. The organization filed two truckloads worth of petition documents on Aug. 2 with the Elections Department for a proposed ballot item that would ban campaign contributions from county lobbyists, vendors and their families, reduce the $1,000 cap on individual donations to $250, and beef-up public financing of campaigns.
County commissioners stalled the petition effort on Aug. 9 when only six appeared for the meeting called to authorize election administrators to start counting the petitions. Seven commissioners are needed for a quorum, and now Accountable Miami-Dade is suing to force a count in time for the September printing of the November ballots. Cuba made his public records request on Aug. 10.
Shortly after Cuba’s proposed fee became public Wednesday, county officials backed off the price tag. Marino said officials are drafting a new estimate based on a much smaller pool of county lawyers whose work overlaps with the petition drive. “They gave him a quote based on 130 county attorneys, but the 130 county attorneys did not deal with that,” she said. “He’s going to get a much lower estimate.” Michael Hernández, an Gimenez spokesman, said Wednesday afternoon that any records search for Cuba involving the mayor or staff under him — which includes the Elections Department but not the County Commission or County Attorney’s Office — will be performed without charge.
In her original email to Cuba, Marino offered to come back with a lower fee if he limited the request’s scope. “In light of the potential time and expense involved, please let us know if you would prefer to narrow your request,” she wrote. Cuba wrote back Wednesday: “This is an absolutely outrageous price to pay for an already narrowed public records request … We will NOT be paying $21,600 for records that belong to the public.”
The eye-popping price tag for a public-records search followed a similar episode with Miami Herald. Miami Beach asked for $73,000 to complete a records request the paper filed related to elevated levels of human-waste near the city’s pumps in Biscayne Bay. Miami Beach and the Herald agreed to a narrower scope of documents, and that search cost less than $50.