Florida

A look at five ‘sunshine citizens’ and their pursuit of public records

Stephanie Porta requested public record after public record from Orange County, Fla. She did so while shepherding county-charter amendment petitions. She was looking for details of the county's opposition. The public records revealed hidden methods of communication by county officials and resulted in the group suing the county successfully.
Stephanie Porta requested public record after public record from Orange County, Fla. She did so while shepherding county-charter amendment petitions. She was looking for details of the county's opposition. The public records revealed hidden methods of communication by county officials and resulted in the group suing the county successfully. AP

Profiles of five “sunshine citizens” who tell us about their motivation and actions in taking on local and state agencies to gain access to public records and meetings.

Milton man’s digging showed county agency’s mismanagement

Read a governmental agency’s financial budget to understand its operation, “how folks are spending your money,” says Jerry Couey, 54. He works for an energy company and lives in Milton, which is five miles northeast of Pensacola.

In 2005, to confirm his suspicions of mismanagement by Team Santa Rosa, the county economic-development council, Couey asked for a copy of its budget.

“They told me I’d have to go see the county budget director,” Couey said.

The Florida Public Records Law requires “all documents” related to “official business by any agency” to be provided without delay.

“That started a chain of events that lasted about six, almost seven years,” Couey says. Links in that long chain included the attorney general, the Office of Open Government, then-Gov. Charlie Crist, the state attorney, the Internal Revenue Service and the FBI.

Crist gave a speech in town. The governor gave Couey a turn at the microphone. He asked Crist to encourage the state attorney to recognize “Sunshine problems in his district and that maybe he should take an interest in it.” At 9 the next morning, the State Attorney’s Office called Couey, eager take on the problems.

Years of digging into public records paid off. The council’s director was removed. “The organization,” Couey says, “was completely dismissed by a 5-0 vote by the county commissioners, and we started over again.”

Couey offers a couple of tips for those seeking public records:

▪ “You always ask to inspect. There’s no charge to inspect.”

▪ “The big key is requesting the right records.” If a record request is not precise, Couey says, “they will copy ‘War and Peace,' which is 900-some pages, and hand it to you and charge you 15 cents a page – and what you really wanted still won’t be in there.”

Woman fights for records on immigration detention center

Ryann Greenberg pushes for access to public records and governmental meetings in the town of Southwest Ranches.

The access provides information about a town plan to approve a 1,500-bed immigration-detention center, she says. The property is just up the road from her house and those of many others.

Southwest Ranches is seven miles southwest of Fort Lauderdale. Greenberg, 37, is an IT sales manager who lives in neighboring Pembroke Pines. She is a candidate for the Pembroke Pines City Commission.

Southwest Ranches is working with landowner and prison operator Corrections Corp. of America to build the detention center for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

To learn more, Greenberg requested town emails. The town said it would provide the emails, only after redacting – blacking out – certain information and payment of $1,000 for the work. A community-donation effort raised the $1,000.

Then, Greenberg says, “I got word that the town had hired a lobbyist.”

She asked the town for lobbying records. “All I got was a contract, essentially, for lobbying services,” she says. “They charged it through the town attorney’s law firm, and the law firm paid the lobbyist.”

She had to comb point-by-point through the town attorney’s bill to document the lobbying costs.

For a town meeting on the detention center, she says, members of the public were grilled one-by-one before being allowed into a town meeting.

Those hoping to enter the meeting each had to write on a card “their name, address and phone number; put whether they were for or against or neutral on the prison; and turn them in before they were granted access.”

Because of the expense to individuals seeking to enforce Florida’s open-government laws, Greenberg says, the state should help them by creating a pro bono procedure “just like the public defender.”

North Florida woman stymied on attempt to get full report

Barbara Jeffords Lemley has a friend who was the sole employee of the Lake Shore Hospital Authority. The agency, created by the Florida Legislature in 1947, provides health care for poor residents of Columbia County.

Lemley, 63, who lives in Lake City and works in real estate rentals, started attending meetings of the authority in 2004. Lake City is 32 miles north of Gainesville and is where the authority is based.

When the authority hired an executive director, Lemley questioned his qualifications. She sought documentation through public records.

“The authority is difficult to get public records from,” Lemley says. “They make it tough.”

To learn about public records, Lemley attended a community college seminar. Barbara Petersen, president of the nonprofit First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee, gave the open-government, how-to talk.

Following that primer and after studying the Florida Public Records Law further on her own, Lemley asked the authority for a copy of a background report for the hiring. “He only provided Page 1 and 2. Pages 3 and 4 were confidential. He said it was a credit report,” she says.

The authority said the credit report is not public because a federal law, which supersedes the state record law, protects it.

Lemley turned to Petersen, who is a lawyer. Petersen wrote to the authority in July. She said the federal law applies “only to consumer reporting agencies,” which the authority is not.

In response, the authority asked its lawyer for a legal opinion. Saying a lawsuit is imminent, the authority used a litigation exemption in the law to withhold the credit report. Lemley says she has not mentioned a lawsuit and cannot afford one.

She has a suggestion for the state: “It would be nice if there were an oversight agency to handle these issues, versus having to sue.”

Former finance manager won lawsuit over pension records

After a corporate life that included managing finances for a large company and overseeing a substantial pension fund, Curtis Lee, 58, retired in Jacksonville.

In 2009, Lee read an article in the Florida Times-Union that said the county Police and Fire Pension Fund was badly underfunded.

Lee had heard of the Florida Public Records Law, “so I knew I had the right to obtain documents.” He contacted the fund and received records at no charge.

“I read through the documents and was basically disgusted because they were wasting millions of dollars a year,” Lee says. Also, the fund’s director was “way overcompensated.” he says. “He was a retired fireman who now manages a $1.5 billion pension fund.”

Lee spoke to higher-level officials about his concerns.

Subsequent requests to the fund resulted in slow response. In their next meeting, fund officials sat Lee before a table containing requested records. Before being allowed to look at the records, Lee says, he was required to “pay $326.40 to compensate them for their time in assembling the documents” or sign a note promising to pay.

“Secondly, I had to sign another piece of paper that was $27 and change per hour for the secretary’s time in making photocopies,” he says.

Lee sued the Pension Fund in circuit court over the charges. He won, but was not awarded legal fees. He appealed for the fees and won in the 1st District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee. The Pension Fund appealed to the Florida Supreme Court, which heard the case Feb. 4. A ruling is expected to take months.

Lee recounts two surprises:

▪ “I didn’t expect that it would be this difficult and that things would last this long.”

▪ “I didn’t expect the governmental entities involved to be this contemptuous of the law.”

Activist won lawsuit from Orange County over public records

Stephanie Porta requested public record after public record from Orange County. She did so while shepherding county-charter amendment petitions. She was looking for details of the county’s opposition.

Porta (por-TAY'), 35, of Orlando is executive director of the central Florida citizens group “Organize Now.”

The public records revealed hidden methods of communication by county officials and resulted in the group suing the county successfully.

“In 2012, we did the first-ever citizen-led petition to put any proposal on the Orange County ballot,” Porta says. The ballot petition called for a sick-pay requirement for businesses with 15 or more employees.

The commission refused to put the issue on the ballot. “The day after that County Commission meeting, we asked for their text messages from that meeting,” Porta says. She received only a portion.

Her group sued the county in November 2012 and won a $90,000 settlement from the county in January 2014.

“What we found,” Porta says, was that officials were texting with corporate leaders and the Republican Party chairman in the county, who were “telling them to delay.”

Pressing for more details, “we heard through a former employee” of the county mayor that officials were using an Internet Cloud account on the Dropbox service to communicate, she says.

To see which county officials had access, and whether lobbyists had access, Organize Now sued in September for the Internet Protocol addresses accessing the account.

In November, a circuit court judge ruled that the addresses were public.

Despite the court victories and an eventual vote approving the sick-pay amendment, the state passed a law prohibiting local sick-pay requirements. Some legislators now are working to exempt IP addresses from the Florida Public Records Law.

During the 60-day legislative session scheduled to end May 1, Porta says, “I’m concerned about the expected attacks on the Sunshine Law.”

Editor’s Note: This is one of several stories by The Associated Press, the American Society of News Editors, McClatchy (parent company of the Miami Herald) and Gannett marking Sunshine Week, an annual celebration of access to public information.

Go to www.mcclatchydc.com to see Sunshine Week’s interactive package.

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