Environment

Want public records from Miami Beach? Got $73,000?

A worker prepares to move one of the storm-water pumps installed near West Avenue and Tenth Street in Miami Beach in September 2014. In response to a Miami Herald request for staff emails discussing the pumps, the city charged the paper nearly $73,000.
A worker prepares to move one of the storm-water pumps installed near West Avenue and Tenth Street in Miami Beach in September 2014. In response to a Miami Herald request for staff emails discussing the pumps, the city charged the paper nearly $73,000. FOR THE MIAMI HERALD

What could cost more than a year’s tuition at Harvard, a 2016 Tesla or a down payment on a house in South Florida?

Public records from Miami Beach.

In response to a request from the Miami Herald this month for emails dealing with water quality monitoring from Mayor Philip Levine and others over the past two years, the city said the paper would need to fork over $72,793.53.

$72,793.53The bill to produce emails that might show what discussions staff and city leaders were having about water quality.

That price covers the hourly wage for Environmental Resources Manager Margarita Wells, who the city said would need to spend two minutes screening each email yielded in a search of phrases such as “numeric nutrient criteria” and “human-source fecal marker” for potentially sensitive information. No requests were made for personnel files, police reports or other documents that might typically contain exempt content. The records request was simply intended to examine discussions staff and city leaders might have had about a network of new pumps and a team of scientists investigating water quality.

1,858The number of hours the city says is needed for a division manager to review emails before releasing them.

To vet the records, the city calculated that Wells, who is paid $39.17 per hour, would need 1,858 hours, or 46 1/2 weeks. The city said it needed to divert a division manager from her job for nearly a full year to comb through public records that a computer tech flagged in less than a day.

This is the kind of stuff that makes you crazy.

Florida First Amendment Foundation President Barbara Petersen

“This is the kind of stuff that makes you crazy,” said Barbara Petersen, president of Florida’s First Amendment Foundation.

“It’s not like email is new, like texting,” she said. “But email, my god, these are problems we’ve been dealing with since 1991.”

The Herald made the request on June 2 after Levine and several commissioners lashed out at hydrologist Henry Briceño at a May 18 commission meeting for a report that documented high levels of bacteria from human waste in bay water near outfalls for new drainage pumps. Levine called a story by the Herald about the report “sloppy science combined with sloppy journalism.”

In a six-page letter to the paper, City Attorney Raul Aguila and City Manager Jimmy Morales demanded a retraction, which the paper rejected.

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To follow-up, the Herald requested emails from seven staff members, Levine and developer Scott Robins, chair of the Mayor’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Flooding and Sea Rise, going back to January 2014, just before the new pumps were installed. The paper also asked for water quality monitoring dating from 2014. The city has since handed over, at no cost, copies of Miami-Dade County’s ongoing sampling of Biscayne Bay and stormwater sampling results performed in January and February.

Faced with the prohibitive costs, on June 23 the Herald narrowed its request to a single search: Henry Briceño. Cost? $182.84, with a discount rate for Wells. Just $21.51 an hour. Plus $3 for a CD.

Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich

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