Government transparency shouldn't be obscured by an exorbitant bill of sale. That is the unwelcome prospect in the city of New Port Richey, where public records requests are being met with pricey tabs that, in at least one instance, totaled $850 before it was halved as a concession to the city's tardiness in providing the information.
The original cost was to be charged to Jeff Sutton, the city's former personnel director, who requested City Manager John Schneiger's e-mails to check if Sutton's July 2010 retirement was being inaccurately described as a firing. The city arrived at the proposed charge by calculating 35 hours of personnel time — that equates to more than $24 per hour — to redact information not subject to Florida's public records law. The city lowered the tab to $427 after taking several months to fulfill Sutton's request. Sutton, who spent 26 years at City Hall, is rightfully perturbed at the assessment and said past records requests never carried such a sizeable price tag.
Amid shrinking tax revenues and smaller staffs, municipal governments have been hard-pressed to balance their annual budgets. Leases for cell phone towers and new penalties for violations detected by red light cameras are just some of the ways New Port Richey is trying to bring in new revenue. However, the city shouldn't be trying to turn public records into a moneymaker. Reasonable costs are permissible under state law, but exorbitant charges are not and they have a chilling effect on the public's ability to access government records.
Two years ago, then-Gov. Charlie Crist's Commission on Open Government Reform spent months holding hearings and writing recommendations to improve citizens' access to government meetings and public records. The plan called for improving transparency and access to government with sensible changes such as merging public records and open meetings laws, encouraging local governments to use electronic records systems that automatically redact exempt information, and clarifying government charges for complying with public records requests. The Legislature, however, chose to ignore this effort toward better government. Local officials should not.
That is particularly true in a city such as New Port Richey which — though it predates existing Council members and administrators — has the embarrassing legacy of paying $27,750 in legal fees after denying public records to a city couple. That 1988 ruling in favor of Terence Brennan and Erin Sullivan — and an even costlier settlement in the couple's successful civil rights suit against the city — brought a litany of suggested public records reforms from former city attorney Jack McPherson that went unheeded.
His son, Scott McPherson, who concluded a three-year term as mayor in the spring, expressed similar sentiments in April when he objected to the proposed public record fees. At the time, the council tabled the proposal, but it resurfaced last month. The impetus for the new policy? It stemmed from a Florida League of Cities revenue-enhancement presentation.
Council members said they only want to recoup costs, not turn a profit from public records nor do they want to put a damper on citizen requests. Try telling that to their former personnel director.