St. Pete housing agency U-turns on charging board member for public records

After facing criticism, agency agrees to provide public records to board member without payment but maintains its policy followed state law.
Published February 8

ST. PETERSBURG — In a sudden about-face, the St. Petersburg Housing Authority will not charge a member of its governing board for copies of agency records and has returned a $900 check to the city council member who agreed to pick up the tab.

But the agency still maintains that it followed Florida's public records law when it first told board commissioner Terri Lipsey Scott that it would not provide her with records she requested unless she paid up to $400 for labor and copying costs.

Housing Authority CEO Tony Love announced the decision in a letter sent Thursday to City Council Chairman Charlie Gerdes. Earlier this week, Gerdes hand-delivered a check to the agency's offices on Gandy Boulevard, saying he made the gesture because he wanted Scott to get the records she requested.

In his letter, Love said he welcomes records requests from Scott and members of the public but added that the agency "must balance extensive and burdensome requests, even from a commissioner, by charging the reasonable fee allowed by Florida statute."

The decision to charge Scott was criticized by Mayor Rick Kriseman and the First Amendment Foundation. Commissioners are charged with overseeing the Housing Authority and serve without pay. Two other local housing authorities said they would never charge a board member for records because it would impede their oversight role.

Scott requested 14 different records in an email sent to the agency Jan. 10, records show. They included minutes of meetings, staff evaluations of Love, legal invoices and audio recordings. There also is a request for documents showing how much the agency paid for staff and commissioners to travel to conferences and other events over the past six years.

In his letter, Love said Scott was seeking information that had "nothing to do with her duties."

"No other commissioner has made requests to the degree or volume of Ms. Scott," he wrote. "In the last three weeks alone, she has made 38 public records requests that will take staff several hours to fill."

Scott disputes that her requests were burdensome. And they were all in line with her duty to oversee the spending of the agency, she said.

"They could have at any point answered the questions I asked at board meetings," she said. "Unfortunately, they chose not to do that."

Florida's public records law states that agencies may charge a reasonable service fee to produce records when the request requires extensive use of technology or staff. But the law does not require them to levy the cost.

Gerdes welcomed the waiving of the fee but wants the board's commissioners to formalize that decision so the issue doesn't arise again.

Michelle Ligon, a consultant for the Housing Authority, said the solution may be for state law to exempt people who serve in oversight positions from being charged.

"The statute is being followed," she said. "There's no question about compliance."

Contact Christopher O'Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_times.

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