Judge: Doral was negligent in preserving city communications

An SDE Media billboard in Doral off Florida’s Turnpike.
An SDE Media billboard in Doral off Florida’s Turnpike. SDE MEDIA

A legal dispute between the city of Doral and a billboard company that claimed council members violated the Sunshine Law has come to a close.

In the 3-year-old case, Judge Norma S. Lindsey of the 11th Judicial Circuit of Florida, who has since been appointed to the Third District Court of Appeal, ruled that the city acted unlawfully in its handling of records by not keeping certain emails, texts and phone logs that were generated by the personal cellphones of council members and the city attorney.

In her ruling, the judge also directed the city to change its procedures so that all future electronic communications can be found by the city’s record’s custodian as soon as they are requested.

“It makes clear that cities need to take aggressive steps to stop their officials from communicating about official business through texts unless those texts are archived and immediately accessible by records custodians,” said Thomas Julin, the attorney representing SDE Media, the billboard company.

City Attorney Dan Espino said that Doral months ago implemented a policy that city officials can only discuss business through formal means of communications, like a city-issued email.

“It’s challenging because you cannot keep third parties from sending you messages via Facebook, WhatsApp, or texts. So now we are directing that officials direct the third party to send their city-related inquiries to them via city email. At that point they should take a screen shot or print out that communication so that it can be a public record,” Espino said.

The lawsuit dates back to 2014, when the city council reversed its earlier vote and rejected an ordinance regulating the location of billboards. The rejection prevented SDE Media from putting up a billboard on the northwest corner of the Palmetto Expressway and Northwest 36th Street, one of the busiest areas of Doral.

SDE Media suspected collusion and immediately requested call and text message records from council members’ phones. When the city fulfilled the records request, lawyers discovered that the city did not keep a record of council members’ text messages, nor did it have a policy regulating private communication between city officials via text. That’s when SDE Media filed a lawsuit seeking those records.

The court ordered 10 city officials, including council members and Espino, to turn over their cellphones in early 2016. It took about a month to collect all of the phones. At the time, councilman Pete Cabrera said it infringed upon his civil rights to hand over the phone and wrestled with doing so for weeks. Espino told the court a boat trailer fell on his phone.

SDE Media is asking that the city pay its attorney fees — about $150,000. Espino said the city plans to argue that the amount is unreasonable.

Monique O. Madan: 305-376-2108, @MoniqueOMadan