If you’ve been around the block as a journalist, chances are some bureaucrat or another has tried to screw you on access to public records: “Those documents you requested seem to be missing.” “We’d be happy to forward you that email. That’ll be $832.45.”
This is all part of the game — the more resistance you get, the better the likelihood that you’re onto something good. But in the few months I’ve lived here, I’ve noticed a troubling default toward secrecy among Northeast Florida’s public officials, one that stands in stalwart opposition to good government.
Just last week, for instance, Fourth Judicial Circuit State Attorney Angela Corey ejected Times-Union reporter Andrew Pantazi from interviews with medical examiner candidates. Sure, maybe the California pathologist the search committee hired was the best candidate and, had everything been done in the open, the result would have been the same. But we’ll never know, and that’s the problem. After the committee’s lawyer determined that these interviews should in fact be conducted in the open, the committee promised to re-air its deliberations at some point down the road. Of course, the decision has already been made, and this “public” interview process will be nothing but theater.
A few months earlier, during the Michael Dunn trial, Corey told local news agencies it would cost them $6,500 — $35.61 per hour of supposed labor — for jail staff to produce recordings of Dunn’s phone calls. Again, these are public records, and shouldn’t be exorbitantly pricey or irksome to obtain.
That’s not how this is supposed to work. The idea behind the state’s Sunshine Law is that a transparent government is more likely to be free of corruption or incompetence. Corey apparently knows better — or thinks she does. Recent history offers examples aplenty of local agencies trying to shirk their obligations to the public they ostensibly represent.
The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office recently told T-U reporters they’d have to pay more than $70 an hour (!) to review public records. Last year, the newspaper sued the city of Jacksonville for negotiating in secret with the Police & Fire Pension Fund. (Circuit Judge Waddell Wallace declared in December that the negotiations were illegal.) In 2011, a Jacksonville man, Curtis Lee, sued that pension fund for overcharging him for records he requested. (Over the years, Lee has spent upward of $90,000 trying to get local agencies to turn over records.) And back in 2007, after a three-year, $9,000 fight that “highlighted the city’s contempt for public records laws,” Folio Weekly contributor Marvin Edwards forced the city to “discover” 25 boxes of records — which officials had previously said didn’t exist — related to the city’s campaigns to lure the Jaguars and the Super Bowl.
Earlier this year, state Rep. David Hood, R-Daytona Beach Shores, rolled out a bill to streamline the public records process and reduce the fees agencies can charge to review records. That legislation died in committee.
Sunlight, as they say, is the best disinfectant. Our public servants serve us. Their records are our records. Their meetings are our meetings. It’s high time they acquiesced to that reality.