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There’s A Lot That Governments Don’t Want You To See

It seemed innocent enough.  The City of Coral Gables was amending its public records policy. It claimed that “The City of Coral Gables strives to be fully transparent and accepts the principles set forth in Chapter 119, Florida Statutes, the Public Records Law.”

Striving to be transparent is good.  Being transparent is better.  It’s also good that Coral Gables accepts Florida law.  But, really, does the Gables have a choice?

The policy of open records in Florida is over a century old.  In 1909, the Legislature passed Chapter 119 of the Florida Statutes, providing that any records made or received by any public agency in the course of its official business must be available for inspection, unless specifically exempted by the Florida Legislature.  With the advent of Xerox, citizens also gained the right to copy documents.

In Florida, you can get a copy of any document for fifteen cents for a single sided copy and twenty cents for a double sided copy.  Over the years, the Legislature has enacted a number of exemptions. For instance, the state passed a law to exempt autopsy photographs and video from open records laws in the wake of the death of NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt.

The public records held by most local governments aren’t nearly that dramatic or incendiary.  Yet, local officials often act as if every public record is a state secret and releasing them to the public could endanger national security.  Well, not national security, but it could threaten the jobs of local government bureaucrats and elected officials.

Such is the case, it seems, with Coral Gables’ new “clarification” of its public records policy.  It granted that “The City Clerk and City Attorney have discretion regarding extensive use fees when providing documents to a customer who intends on appearing as a party, applicant, or appellant before the City Commission, City Boards, or City Committees, or and in providing documents to a bona fide media outlet regarding a matter of great public interest.”

This provision would turn the public records law on its head. Under state law, it doesn’t matter who is requesting the public record or for what purpose they are seeking it. The focus is sure always be on the record and not the requester.

The proposed policy, instead, gives the City Clerk and City Attorney discretion to decide who will be charged “extensive use fees” depending on how they might be used.  More troubling is the exercise of that discretion when deciding who is or who is not “bona fide media”.

Elaine DeValle, who writes under the pen name of Ladra in “Political Cortadito”, is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who has her own independent blog now. She frequently deflates the pomp and inflated egos of local officials, writing from a sheaf of public records she’s obtained. Al Crespo is another blogger who skewers local politicians by exposing waste, fraud, and abuse.
It is entirely conceivable that the Coral Gables Clerk and Attorney might use their “discretion” to declare these two, and many outside of legacy media, not to fit within the definition of “bona fide media.”  And, once doing so, charge them fees higher than those they might charge a reporter that they are sure will write a piece that burnishes the reputation of the powerful rather than trying to burn the house down.

“Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?,” was a quote attributed to Henry II of England. When uttered it prompted four knights, loyal to the King, to ride to Canterbury, where they killed Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1170. Politicians haven’t changed that much in the last nine centuries.  It is easy to see that an obsequious bureaucrat might want to rid a policymaker of a meddlesome reporter.

The situation in Coral Gables isn’t unique in Florida.  Various cities and towns, especially those led by controversial leaders, often have their municipalities adopt policies where the public records requested by “troublemakers” are answered with a demand for what amounts to a “go-away”.  South Miami under former Mayor Phil Stoddard was notorious for putting high price on requested documents. Similarly, Miami Lakes under former Mayor Michael Pizzi was also known for padding public records requests with an extra zero or two.  

When he was Miami-Dade School Superintendent, Rudy Crew often claimed that the only person who could  retrieve the requested documents was an Assistant Superintendent whose wage was more than $100 per hour.
Most ordinary citizens can’t afford such extortive penalties or the legal fees required to litigate their reasonableness.  That way, there’s a greater chance that bad deeds will go undiscovered.

The “update” to the Coral Gables public records policy got pulled from the City Commission’s agenda because the government was starting to feel a lot of heat over this change.  Don’t breathe a sigh of relief or think that the issue has gone away for good.

It will likely return, especially when the attention of the public is focused elsewhere.

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Visit our extensive furniture showroom from the
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