Southwest Ranches Prison Opponent Is Suing the Town for $1.25 Over Public Records

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Bill Di Scipio, a Southwest Ranches resident who is spearheading the campaign against a proposed ICE detention facility, has bombarded the town with public-records requests for months now. Some of his requests have been successful, yielding emails that provide a glimpse into the otherwise secretive negotiations that have gone on as prison contractor CCA and the town have sweet-talked the final stages of a deal with ICE.

But many have gone unanswered, says Di Scipio, and the town attorney, Keith Poliakoff, is keeping a tight lid on town information. 

Now Di Scipio taken his fight for transparency to the courts: He's suing the town for $1.25.

In the suit, Di Scipio claims that he was denied access to records that weren't exempt under Florida public records law -- when he should have been allowed to come and inspect them for free.

The trouble started when the town clerk, Erika Gonzalez-Santamaria, allegedly told him he wasn't allowed to take pictures of the records with his iPhone and would instead have to fork over 15 cents per page for printed copies. 

That's an all-too-common refrain from records custodians -- we've heard it before too -- but the fact is, it's wrong (as Joel Chandler with the Florida Open Government blog points out). From the Florida Public Records Act:

FS 119.07 (3)(a) Any person shall have the right of access to public records for the purpose of making photographs of the record while such record is in the possession, custody, and control of the custodian of public records.

Di Scipio had only $1.25 in his pocket at the time, so he paid for $1.20 worth of records (the clerk was unable to provide his five cents of change). 

Later, the lawsuit claims, Santamaria contacted Town Attorney Keith Poliakoff and asked if Di Scipio could photograph the records for free. 

"I got back to her and said I would not object to him taking photos of the record," Poliakoff tells the Sun-Sentinel. "He had already left."

Di Scipio's lawyer, Tampa-based John McKnight, says that Santamaria did not send a clear email to his client explaining that the records would be made available for free. So Di Scipio is suing for the $1.25 he says he shouldn't have been asked to pay.

The lawsuit is being picked up by several media outlets, which provides welcome publicity to Di Scipio's case against the prison and the secrecy that surrounds it. Poliakoff told the Huffington Post, "The town will not hesitate to seek full damages and fees against Mr. Di Scipio and his legal counsel for filing such a frivolous complaint." 

Poliakoff seems to confer with the town clerk and deputy clerk often, telling them which records they do and do not have to provide. Now, with Southwest Ranches' reputation of being cagey with public records, this chump-change lawsuit could be a symbol of much bigger concerns.

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