Clear as Mud

These have been interesting times in Jacksonville City Hall, even as all of the drama appears likely not to come to all that much in the end.

The latest iteration: intragovernmental concerns about transparency or so-called open government.

City Council President Anna Lopez Brosche set up a Task Force on Open Government, and many of its members are heavy hitters in the community. They have turned their attention to the question of how accessible and open government is to citizens. A laudable topic.

This writer assisted the group in its inquiry a couple of weeks ago, participating in a media panel that included The Florida Times-Union Editor Mary Kelli Palka and WJCT News Director Jessica Palombo.

For those very few paying attention, the panel was instructive. Much of the testimony addressed the issue of media not getting access to records and documentary information instrumental to explaining how the city actually works.

A bleak leitmotif: The press has, at best, limited recourse to actually force those releases.

The T-U, should it be inclined, does have the resources to bring a matter to court. However, as Palka said on Twitter recently, there are functional caveats: “Must we sue to get compliance? How many lawsuits? Against how many agencies? And must residents do the same? Why must we fight so hard to get them in the public’s hands? It’s often not the small things. It’s usually the things they don’t want you to know about.”

Palka is presiding over a newsroom with a phalanx of tough, smart reporters who are battling with the reality of an industry evolving from a print model, and the monetization that once guaranteed, to something else. Layoffs in the print press are happening across the country, and Jacksonville has seen its newsrooms shrink like everywhere else.

Even well-financed operations like Gatehouse/Tegna/Cox Media Group/WJXT is only going to go so far, in other words. What about the rest?

Palombo noted that WJCT has a budget of $400 or so per year for public record requests. That money doesn’t extend to legal challenges for spiked or slow-walked requests, or requests where exemptions are claimed.

One of two field reporters for WJCT, Ryan Benk, tweeted in stark relief: “Records are costly and lawsuits compelling compliance are more so. These are the options we are routinely given when working on tough stories. Little outlets have almost no recourse. A lack of funds means that even if we’re on to something, we can’t prove it. And agencies know it.”

One outlet with considerable recourse also recently spotlighted the issue. A Reuters reporter pursued public records on Jacksonville’s cybersecurity protections, ranging from contracts with third party security providers to potential “ransom payments” doled out to malefactors and cyberterrorists.

The city claimed exemption from inspection of virtually all requested public records pursuant to Florida Statute, Section 119.071 (3).

That statute allows exemptions on a variety of grounds, and the Reuters reporter squawked, saying the city was applying it too liberally and contravening the law. The city’s take, meanwhile, is that divulging this information would constitute a security threat.

I wrote about it for another outlet. Media people-well, the print media-took interest in it. Did the general public care? No evidence of that. (Perhaps because neither Laurel nor Yanny have commented yet).

Soon enough, city officials re-assumed control of the narrative. It was within the confines of that same task force, as city records custodian Craig Feiser and Mayor Lenny Curry’s lead spokesperson Marsha Oliver convincingly enumerated a narrative of substantial compliance.

To sum up: The vast majority of public records requests are fulfilled without incident, and if exemption is called for, that’s an exception to the rule.

Is that consistent with the lived experience of media? Every reporter who has been in this market long enough to get some gray hairs, a functional ulcer, an extra 20 pounds, and a few bouts of crippling depression has a story about a PRR spiked or slow-walked. That’s not going to change.

Another thing that won’t change is the city being the ultimate arbiter of what can and can’t be disclosed. Brosche is about to leave the council presidency. Aaron Bowman, who at this writing looks like the inevitable choice for council president, shares the mayor’s frustration with many aspects of the Brosche era. The “Task Force on Open Government” will be a footnote in the end.

One closing salvo-this is a city where, sooner or later, every dissident is dealt in. Yesterday’s rabble-rouser becomes co-opted, like Winston Smith learning to “love Big Brother.” By the time most people get the institutional knowledge to form effective critiques, the institution finds a place for them.  

Sure, it comes with a muzzle and a straitjacket. But consider the garments’ fine workmanship. And the prestige of wearing the uniform.