Miami Beach has admitted it made a mistake when it wanted to charge the Miami Herald $73,000 for public records related to research that found elevated levels of human waste bacteria in Biscayne Bay near the city’s massive new flood control pumps.
The re-calculated bill is still quite expensive: $40,000. That’s down from the cost of a shiny new Tesla to something like a lightly used 2016 BMW 318i (though without the real leather seats).
City Manager Jimmy Morales sent a memo to commissioners Tuesday afternoon defending the city's estimate for handling more than 100,000 emails or records, which the city calculated would take an employee 1,858 hours, or 46 1/2 weeks, to review. But he acknowledged the city had erred when it used the hourly rate of a highly compensated manager — $39.17 per hour — in figuring the projected tab.
"The one mistake that was made was the use of the wrong hourly rate. City policy is to apply the hourly rate of the lowest paid employee in the applicable department, and not the rate of the actual person conducting the review," wrote Morales. "In this case, that would have required applying the hourly rate of the office associate in the Environmental Dept. That rate is $ 21.51, which still would have resulted in an estimate of almost $40,000."
In his explanation for wanting an employee to review each email, Morales wrote that governments have the right to protect information that is exempt from public records law, like security plans and employee’s Social Security numbers.
The Herald's request was for emails among city staff and elected officials regarding its pumps and water quality testing, which were highly unlikely to include any such exempt material. The intention was to review discussions at City Hall about the new pumps and scientists studying water quality.
The request was made after Mayor Philip Levine and other commissioners lashed out at Florida International University hydrologist Henry Briceño and the Herald over a report that found high levels of bacteria from human waste in bay water near outfalls for new drainage pumps during the seasonal king tide last fall.
The Herald narrowed its search to emails that mention Briceño, which yielded a request that will cost $182.84, which includes the CD, at the lower rate of $21.51.
Tuesday afternoon, Herald managing editor Rick Hirsch responded to Morales’ memo:
"It's hard to understand why a request for emails about water quality sampling would need to be reviewed individually to check for confidential information like social security number,” he said. “It's also hard to imagine such a task taking 46 weeks of an employee's time, or how $73,000 or even $40,000 could be considered a "reasonable cost' for producing something the city could have put on a thumb drive in an hour."