St. Petersburg housing agency refuses to release documents to a member of its own governing board unless she pays for them.

The St. Petersburg Housing Authority sent board member Terri Lipsey Scott an email asking for payment after she requested copies of invoices, evaluations and other documents.
Published February 4
Updated February 4

ST. PETERSBURG — As a commissioner on the St. Petersburg Housing Authority's governing board, Terri Lipsey Scott considers it her duty to scrutinize how the agency is run.

So Scott was taken aback when she recently received an email from the agency telling her she would have to pay $280 for agency records she requested to review. The cost would rise up to as much as $400 if she wanted paper copies.

Commissioners, who serve on a voluntary basis, vote on all big-item spending by the agency and also make decisions about the CEO's pay and performance. Scott has refused to pay the charge, which she described as an attempt to thwart her from doing her job. She is also questioning why Housing Authority CEO Tony Love has not responded to her concerns.

"It was laughable," Scott said. "Other members of that board have access to him. I was immediately directed to his assistant."

Scott requested 14 different records in an email sent Jan. 10. Her request included minutes of meetings, staff evaluations of Love, travel and legal invoices, and audio recordings of the agency's personnel committee meetings, where Love's annual evaluation took place.

In the request, Scott said she was willing to come into the office and make copies of records so that staff would not be pulled away from their regular work.

The email reply she received from Chief Operating Office LaShunda Battle stated that Scott would have to pay the labor costs for staff to produce the records. The agency estimated her request would produce between 500 and 800 pages of documents. Scott would also be charged a copying fee of 15 cents per page if she wanted paper copies.

"Payment must be received before the requested information will be released," the letter states.

Scott disputes that her request would produce anywhere near that many documents. Only one of her requests, related to travel by other commissioners since 2013, asked the agency to go back more than a couple of years.

Among the details Scott was seeking was how commissioners on the personnel committee justified awarding Love a 5 percent pay raise and increasing his monthly car allowance from $600 to $700 per month, both backdated to the beginning of 2018. They also recommended he and top staff get a slice of any development fees from the construction of new public housing. That idea was later scrapped.

Housing Authority officials said in an email that the decision to charge Scott was in keeping with their public records policy. But that policy was questioned by St. Petersburg City Council member Lisa Wheeler-Bowman at a meeting Thursday. The agency is expected to ask the city to sign off on a $25 million tax exempt bond the housing authority wants to issue to rehab and redevelop Jordan Park.

Love told council members that producing the records would pull staff away from their daily work. In cases where requested documents can be easily and quickly obtained, board members would not be charged, Love said.

"In this case, it does take considerable time and we have to put a clerical person to do that," he said. "We're just trying to cover their cost to do that."

The seven commissioners who make up the Housing Authority's governing board provide the only oversight of the agency, which is autonomous from the city. Commissioners are selected by the St. Petersburg mayor and approved by city council. But the agency is otherwise autonomous from the city meaning its commissioners provide the only oversight.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman took to social media site Twitter to point out that only the agency's board has the authority to fire Love.

"It is ludicrous and beyond the pale to charge a commissioner for a (public record) request," he wrote.

Florida's public records law states that an agency cannot charge a fee for inspection or review of documents except in cases that require extensive use of technology or staff. Then a "reasonable" service fee can be charged.

Officials at housing authorities in Tampa and Pinellas said it is their policy to provide board members with all documents they request at no charge no matter how extensive the request.

"Board members are policymakers and, as I see it, they should have access to any document without restrictions. Otherwise their oversight role could be hindered," said Leroy Moore, Tampa Housing Authority's chief operating officer. "I have never heard of a board member not being able to obtain documents within the organization."

Debbie Johnson, chief executive of the Pinellas County Housing Authority, said not only are records provided free to commissioners, but she would also make a room available for them to review documents if needed.

Scott said she is still waiting to see if the agency will provide the documents. If not, she plans to raise the issue at the next board meeting on Feb. 28.

And she hasn't ruled out paying.

"I have people willing to give me money to get the information they’re so incensed by the idea of it not being made available," she said.

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

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