Let me say up front that this is not about the former Ocean Ridge police chief. It is not even about what led up to his more-than-$80,000 settlement with the town. This is about the right of taxpayers to know how the government they support operates.
It should be simple: File a public records request and get a copy of the records within a reasonable amount of time, with a bill for expenses the town incurred fulfilling the request.
Instead, a public records request filed by this newspaper in January has run into a roadblock: It seems our request cannot be fulfilled without a lawsuit being filed.
Filing a lawsuit to get records has become so ubiquitous — consider the litigious situation in Gulf Stream — we decided to pursue these records without legal representation. It seemed like a simple request.
All we wanted to see was a timeline of town communications leading up to the police chief’s resignation.
I’ve worked at newspapers for most of my career and this sort of request is not uncommon. What appears to have changed in recent years is that 1) newspapers that can afford legal help no longer devote the resources to covering small towns, and 2) contracts for services have been agreed to that appear to make compliance with Florida’s records act difficult, if not impossible.
In the case of our request for telephone logs, we discovered that Lantana, Manalapan and Ocean Ridge have contracted with phone carriers that either do not capture a log of local calls or require a subpoena before they will provide a log of any local calls.
I’m guessing the decision makers of these towns didn’t consider this inability to get records from their carriers to be a public records concern when they entered into these contracts. And although it’s hard to imagine, they must have felt they would have no need to know who is calling their employees or what local calls their employees might be making while in the office.
Residents of Lantana, Manalapan and Ocean Ridge should demand that new contracts with their phone carrier be negotiated as soon as possible.
Think about it: How many situations can you think of where knowledge of the source, timing and frequency of calls into and out of a town hall might shed light on decisions that impact its citizens? I doubt I’m the only taxpayer who believes this information should be a public record.
I’ve been in touch with records experts in private practice and with the First Amendment Foundation and all agree that a provision in Florida Statute 119.0701 explains that a private company providing services on behalf of a public agency must comply with the requirements of the public records law.
But apparently, it’s not that simple. Ocean Ridge’s town attorney, Ken Spillias, cites case law outlining when a private entity under contract with a public agency falls within the purview of the Public Records Act.
In the case of these three towns, he maintains the law says the phone carriers do not, and adds, “If a party believes that determination to be incorrect the proper action would be to file a lawsuit against the carriers since they are the creators and custodians of those documents.”
Right back to square one: the filing of lawsuits. Sigh.
What seemed like a straightforward request for public records has turned into a tedious four-month process involving attorneys, hourlong calls to telephone carriers, email exchanges with public record experts and bad jokes about The Coastal Star being “the enemy” of the town and its elected officials.
We are not the enemy. We are citizens and taxpayers. Our request was not extreme or malicious. Access to public records is not a joke.
As taxpayers, you have the right to know how the government you support operates. Demand it.
— Mary Kate Leming, Editor