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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Environmental lawyer: Water agency trying to retaliliate and bully detractors



If you want to keep a low profile, don't disagree with the South Florida Water Management District, or ask for its email list.

That's what Lisa Interlandi, a lawyer with the nonprofit Everglades Law Center, and other environmental advocates have learned in the last few months as they have become the target of email blasts by the state agency.

The latest email was issued Monday to the more than 5,000 addresses on the district's email list. With a subject head labeled "Your privacy," the agency gave out Interlandi's email address and then announced she had done what anyone in Florida is entitled to do: submit a records request seeking SFWMD's email distribution list.

"As you may know, such email lists and addresses are commercial commodities that are often bought and sold,'' the agency wrote. It cited no examples. "The law prohibits SFWMD from asking about the intended use for the information. Any concern you may have about a potential invasion of privacy is understandable."

Interlandi said the suggestion that she wanted to sell the list was “absurd.”

“It's a public record. It has no value. Anyone who asks for it can get it for free,’’ she said. Instead, she said she wanted the list after watching the water management district increasingly use hostile news releases to target critics of the agency and she thought having the list could be helpful if anyone wanted to "counter the attacks."

Randy Smith, spokesman for the SFWMD, said Thursday the agency never before had “received a mass public records demand for an email address list” and called the request “completely out of the ordinary.” “Persons having entrusted their email addresses to the state have every right to know that their information has been obtained by a third party without their consent,’’ he said.

Most other state agencies include a standard disclosure on the bottom of agency emails remainding people that Florida has a broad public records law and most written communication to or from state officials regarding state business -- including all emails -- is considered a public record.

The SFWMD, which is funded by state and local tax dollars and is considered a state agency, does not include such a disclosure when it sends out blast emails to its more than 5,000 recipients. Smith did not answer why.

When asked for an example of how the district’s email list was used as a commercial commodity that was bought and sold, Smith provided links to commercial email list companies but offered no examples.

Interlandi, who has only once before requested public records from the agency, said that if the tactic was intended as “a retaliatory attempt to chill and bully their detractors” and an attempt to provoke a flurry of angry emails to her inbox. If true, she said, it didn’t work.

“I received four emails from people who were curious why they wanted my email address. One was a reporter,’’ she said. “It seems very counter to the idea of a government that is responsive to its citizens. Instead, this seems more like a political campaign with an attempt to smear people and discredit those who disagree with their approach.”

Since Gov. Rick Scott 's appointees to the water management district board installed former Scott general counsel and Palm Beach County state attorney Pete Antonacci as head of the district last fall, the agency has gotten more aggressive in its dealing with advocacy groups that traditionally had a good working relationship with the district.

In March the Tampa Bay Times reported that Antonacci angered U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials when he accused them of threatening the arrest of district officials over the SFWMD’s handling of the endangered snail kite, an allegation federal officials denied.

In May, when the Caloosahatchee River Watch in Fort Myers held a public forum May 11 to "discuss the reservoir and what additional features or projects can improve its contributions to solving regional water problems," the SFWMD sent out an email concluding that the discussion "will consist solely of one-sided detractors in pursuit of an agenda without facts to support it. And it also called out former Lee County Commissioner Ray Judah, a Republican, for criticizing the district’s scientific modeling.

After scientists and Miami Dade and Monroe County officials suggested in a Miami Herald report in July that a district proposals was a "short-term fix," the district sent out an email blast suggesting the critics and scientists were “career pessimists.”

And last month, the agency used a press release to criticize Audubon of Florida for disagreeing with the district's decision to rollback property taxes instead of paying for invasive species control in the Arthur Marshall National Wildlife Refuge.

The district has criticized the media too. In April, it said the Fort Myers News-Press report on skepticism over a district proposal for the C-43 Reservoir was “an astonishing evasion of the facts.”

Antonacci, fourth executive director appointed by the governor-appointed board in four years, said in an interview with the South Florida Sun-Sentinel last year that “the district is not effective at getting its message out about what this organization does and how critical this organization is to South Florida.”

Smith would not respond to questions about whether the district’s hard-line tactics were an attempt to address that issue.

We asked the district to explain the policy and decisions surrounding it. Here are our questions and its answers:

Q: What has led to the district's decision to use its news releases to publicly call out critics? 

A: No response

Q: Director Antonacci told the Sun-Sentinel in October 2015: "The district is not effective at getting its message out about what this organization does and how critical this organization is to South Florida. "

A: No response

Q: Are these "Get the Facts" missives part of Mr. Antonacci's effort to improve what he consider's a failure on the part of the agency's communications efforts? 

A. No response

Q: In your Aug. 22 email entitled "Your Privacy," you listed the email and alerted people to the public records request, why did you include the email of the individual seeking the PRR?

1)      When faced with a mass public record demand for private and other email addresses, SFWMD, in an abundance of caution, chose to notify the persons affected of this fact.

2)      SFWMD has never received a mass public records demand for an email address list. The requester did not ask for communication or specific emails but rather an entire email address list, which was completely out of the ordinary.

3)      SFWMD has no knowledge as to what the third party requester will do with these email addresses. SFWMD has never communicated about this subject with the entity prior to fulfilling this request and is not permitted to ask for specifics.  

Q: Is it a common practice to put the individual of private individuals in your blast emails?

4)      SFWMD never mentioned the requester by name. SFWMD never assumes an identity of an individual solely based off an email address.

5)      Persons having entrusted their email addresses to the state have every right to know that their information has been obtained by a third party without their consent.

Q: On what did you base the conclusion that public email lists are commercial commodities?

A. No response.

Q. Can you provide me an example in which the SFWMD "email lists and addresses" has been used as a commercial commodity that was bought and sold? 

A. No response. They did provide these "examples of why email lists are commercial commodities":

Q: Why do district emails not include the standard disclosure statements included in most state agency emails? Such as:

PLEASE NOTE:  Florida has a very broad public records law. Most written communications to or from state officials regarding state business are considered to be public records and will be made available to the public and the media upon request. Your e-mail messages may, therefore, be subject to public disclosure.

A. No response.

Q: In this "Get the Facts" statement: answer how you came to the conclusion that the forum "will consist solely of one-sided detractors" and they were in "pursuit of an agenda without facts to support it"?

A. No response. 

[Last modified: Thursday, August 25, 2016 11:54pm]


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