Local governments spend a lot of money to get out the information they want you to hear about (aka propaganda). But what about when you try to utilize the state's vaunted public information laws (aka Sunshine Law) to get the stuff they don't necessarily want out there?
Well, that's when they charge you and, in general, try to break you down like a rented mule.
It's a despicable practice, but it happens all the time. Just about every journalist around has dealt with it a time or two. One recent case study in these dirty tactics comes via Cal Deal, who is trying to pry loose some public records from the City of Fort Lauderdale.
Deal, the local graphic artist and gadfly-extraordinaire, wanted some of Fort Lauderdale Commissioner Cindi Hutchinson's e-mails (you know Hutch, she's the commissioner spent a few bucks in city money to send out campaign mailers and then lied about it). His pursuit started out innocently enough, with an email last Wednesday to the city's Maxine Singh:
From: Cal Deal [mailto:email@example.com] Sent: Wednesday, April 23, 2008 12:55 PM To: Maxine Singh Subject: Email Hi Maxine, Please consider this a public records request. I would like you to forward to me copies of all email between Cindi and Mark Boyd from April 1, 2008 to the present. Thanks. Cal
Two days of silence passed, so Deal reminded Singh of his request:
From: Cal Deal [mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org] Sent: Friday, April 25, 2008 3:35 PM To: Maxine Singh Subject: emails Hi Maxine, When can I have those emails??? Who should I contact? Email address please. Thank you. Cal
Singh informed Deal that she'd forwarded the request to City Attorney Harry Stewart. Stewart promptly sat on them. It was apparently a process whereby each lax official had to be reminded of the request, so Deal gave Stewart a gentle nudge:
From: Cal Deal [mailto:email@example.com] Sent: Friday, April 25, 2008 3:51 PM To: Harry Stewart Cc: Jonda Joseph Subject: emails Importance: Hig
I was wondering when I can expect the emails requested below.
Stewart, thus awakened, replied:
From: Harry Stewart Sent: Friday, April 25, 2008 4:06 PM To: 'Cal Deal' Cc: Jonda Joseph; DJ Williams-Persad Subject: RE: emails
Mr. Deal - I have forwarded your request to DJ Williams-Persad, Assistant City Attorney for handling.
DJ - After you talk to the IT people please let me Deal know when to expect the emails and what the cost will be.
Stewart here shows his mastery of sandbagging snooping citizens, first stalling him and then hinting that he will have to pay through the nose for his nosiness regarding the commissioner.
A few days passed before the city's Williams-Persad got back to Deal:
On Apr 29, 2008, at 9:06 AM, DJ Williams-Persad wrote:
Good Morning Mr. Deal, I forwarded your request to IT for an estimate (as you can see below) and I will respond to you with a amount for deposit, if applicable, as soon as they get back to me.
A deposit. You gotta love that. It's like he's about to rent an apartment or lock in an offer on a house. And all the poor fellow wants is a few emails. Deal responds:
From: Cal Deal [mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org] Sent: Tuesday, April 29, 2008 9:10 AM To: DJ Williams-Persad Cc: Brittany Wallman ((E-mail)); Bob Norman; Tim Smith ((E-mail)); raymond dettmann; Karen Becker Subject: Re: emails New Public Records Request
I would be shocked if a deposit was required for a small number of emails in this six-day-old request.
You have to imagine Harry and the boys getting a chuckle out this. The city responded just a couple hours ago:
On Apr 29, 2008, at 3:30 PM, Karen Becker wrote:
Dear Mr. Deal: We have been advised by IT staff that there will be a special service charge in the estimated amount of $28.36 to gather the e-mail you requested. The staff member makes $56.73 per hour and it will take him approximately 30 minutes to gather the records. We are authorized to charge a special service charge pursuant to Section 119.07(4)(d), Florida Statutes which provides:
If the nature or volume of public records requested to be inspected or copied pursuant to this subsection is such as to require extensive use of information technology resources or extensive clerical or supervisory assistance by personnel of the agency involved, or both, the agency may charge, in addition to the actual cost of duplication, a special service charge, which shall be reasonable and shall be based on the cost incurred for such extensive use of information technology resources or the labor cost of the personnel providing the service that is actually incurred by the agency or attributable to the agency for the clerical and supervisory assistance required, or both.
If you do want us to proceed, we will need half of the amount as a deposit, i.e., $14.18, in a check made payable to the City of Fort Lauderdale. Please advise if you want us to proceed.
Please do not hesitate to contact us if you have any questions. Thank you.
A half hour of an IT person's time is considered "extensive"? So Deal now has to pay that person's salary? Where does the money go? Does the IT person get paid double for that half-hour? Or does it go into a slush fund for the bureaucrats to have a few drinks?
What the hell is this?
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Deal, seeking the answer, wrote back:
From: "Cal Deal"
Subject: Re: emails New Public Records Request Date: Tue, 29 Apr 2008 16:38:53 -0400 To: "Karen Becker"
Please tell me the city's definition of "extensive use of information technology resources" and "extensive clerical or supervisory assistance." What constitutes "extensive?"
Please tell me how that applies to giving me copies of maybe 15 emails transmitted in a very short period of time to and from one individual.
Give Cal the credit, he made it all the way to the endgame. And it's pretty cheap, relatively speaking. They let him off easy. The county and various local governments have tried to charge me and my newspaper hundreds of dollars for similar requests. At times, we've paid it, other times we've told them to go screw themselves sideways.
In the name of transparent government, of course.