The Coastal Star

Gulf Stream: Town reports only a small decline in public records requests

By Steve Plunkett

    Gulf Stream officials and outside attorneys spent an estimated 4,670 hours processing, evaluating, researching and answering requests for public records in fiscal 2016.
    The town’s new staff attorney, Trey Nazzaro, making his first annual public-records compliance report, noted a recent article in The Florida Bar Journal and told town commissioners that Gulf Stream has become a sort of poster child.
    “I included that as part of this report because it does reference the town of Gulf Stream and the situation we are dealing with and setting us as an example of intentional misuse of the Public Records Act,” he said.
    Nazzaro said Gulf Stream received 387 requests for public records in the 12 months ending Sept. 30 and disposed of all but 13. In 53 cases, the town gave an estimate of how much it would cost to fulfill the requests; only four of the estimates were paid.
    Additionally, the town faces 38 active lawsuits alleging noncompliance with the state’s public records laws, he said. The complaints allege delay or error, but none claims intentional misconduct by town officials.
    Residents Martin O’Boyle and Christopher O’Hare account for nearly all of the requests and legal actions.
    Gulf Stream closes a request when it has been fulfilled, when no deposit has been paid within 30 days of an estimate being provided, or when there is no response from the requestor within 30 days.
    The town does not charge for the first 15 minutes of staff time in answering public records requests. The year’s 387 requests amounted to 96.75 hours of “free” research worth $3,870, Nazzaro said.
    The numbers are trending downward. In the previous fiscal year the town received 428 new requests for public records. And town employees spent 4,913 hours handling them, compared with 3,002 hours in the latest year.
    Those 3,002 hours equal one person working full time for 17 months. The law firms the town uses worked an additional 1,642 hours.
    By comparison, Ocean Ridge has received only 24 requests for public records since Tracey Stevens became town clerk in January. Stevens said she did not think her longtime predecessor, Karen Hancsak, kept track but told her the town, which with 1,662 residents is twice as big as Gulf Stream, “hardly ever” received requests.
    Town Manager William Thrasher hired Nazzaro in October as Gulf Stream’s first full-time staff attorney, saying the move saved $188 an hour in legal fees. As a paralegal at Town Attorney John “Skip” Randolph’s law firm in 2014, Nazzaro helped the town write its public records procedures.
    In other business Nov. 10, the Town Commission learned that former Vice Mayor Robert Ganger had withdrawn his request that Gulf Stream help pay legal fees he incurred fighting a deposition in an O’Boyle lawsuit against the town. In October he requested $2,355, less than a third of what his lawyer charged.
    Commissioners seemed poised to reimburse the full amount but delayed a decision to investigate whether that would open his legal affairs to more public records requests.

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Comment by Christopher O'Hare on November 30, 2016 at 4:18pm

Town leaders continue to promote this false narrative with the help of the Coastal Star that they are the victim of “intentional misuse of the Public Records Act.” Nothing could be further from the truth. The Town refuses to answer reasonable questions asked during public meetings. The Town Manager refuses to answer reasonable questions asked via email. If not for the Public Records Act the Town’s secrets would forever remain hidden. And believe me there are apparently a great many secrets.

According to the Town’s numbers, in the last 12 months the Town received 387 requests to inspect a public record and spent 4644 hours responding (3002 staff hours and 1642 attorney hours). That equals 12 hours per request. When you consider that most of the time the Town’s response to a request is “The record does not exist” you have to ask yourself why does it average 12 hours for the Town to respond to each request?

The issue here is not that some citizens want to get to the bottom of what’s going on in this small Town by asking to inspect a lot of records.  The real issue is why the Town needs an average of 12 hours to respond to each record request and why so much taxpayer money is being wasted on a “fight to the death” in court every time they screw up and why staff time is being wasted producing self-serving and misleading reports like this one.

The Coastal Star should be reporting on the current investigation by the State Attorney into the Town illegally publishing on its website the social security numbers of ALL Town employees and some residents. I continue to find these violations and report them immediately but it keeps happening. Shame on this Town.

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