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Former Tarpon Springs commissioner's request for e-mails should be rejected

Weeks after stepping down from the Tarpon Springs City Commission because of term limits, Peter Dalacos is asking the city to continue to treat him like a commissioner. He wants the city to automatically forward to his personal e-mail account all the e-mails sitting commissioners send and receive. Dalacos is asking for service state law does not require of local governments. City commissioners should reject his request.

Florida's public records law gives the public access to a wealth of government documents, including officials' e-mails when they concern government business. However, that obligation for access refers to existing public records, not records that might be produced in the future. Dalacos wants automatic access granted in advance for e-mails that haven't yet been created.

Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, said the state's open records law requires government to provide access only to records in its custody at the time the request is made.

Dalacos made his request in writing last month and reiterated it at a recent City Commission workshop. He wants all future e-mails sent or received by the city commissioners and city manager, and also e-mails between the city and the Florida League of Cities and the Suncoast League of Cities.

He said he wants them so he can "continue to be involved and follow up on items that I was working on before and would like to see through to their completion." Perhaps that is his motivation, but this sounds more like a fishing expedition. His request is not limited to information about any particular project. And if he merely wanted to track specific projects, wouldn't he ask for all documents related to those projects rather than just e-mails?

Imagine the burden that would be created if the city government were compelled to forward all future e-mails to all members of the public who asked for them. Locating all e-mails, reviewing them to remove exempt information and maintaining the e-mail list would be an enormous task on the small city clerk's staff.

City commissioners and Mayor David Archie didn't leap to accommodate Dalacos. Archie said Dalacos should not receive special treatment and pointed out that a new commissioner, Jeff Larsen, has been elected who can competently follow city projects. But knowing Dalacos' habit of obsessively collecting information, commissioners decided the city needs a public records policy to give guidance to the city clerk.

The state law is specific about government's legal obligations and the city attorney could address the clerk's specific questions. But a policy might be a good idea anyway, since Dalacos is likely to test the city's procedures and patience.

Any city policy should track the state law and confirm the city's support for open government. It should make clear that all members of the public are on equal footing in getting their public records requests addressed.

The policy also should state when the city will charge a fee for providing records, how the fee will be set and how it will be collected. State law permits local governments to charge a fee when a public records request causes a substantial burden. The policy should make clear when the fee would be triggered.

When commissioners did not immediately grant his request for automatic forwarding of e-mails, Dalacos filed a formal request with the city clerk for every e-mail sent to and from every commissioner, between commissioners and the city manager, and between the city and the Florida League of Cities and the Suncoast League of Cities. Assuming he means e-mails that already exist, he is entitled, as any member of the public would be, to have the request promptly fulfilled.

But if Dalacos cares about saving his city money during these tough financial times, he will make his public records requests as focused as possible and happily pay the costs.

Former Tarpon Springs commissioner's request for e-mails should be rejected 05/11/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 11, 2010 5:41pm]
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