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Romano: State agency plays bully when it doesn't get its way in Florida

Published Aug. 28, 2016

Here's an interesting story about a government agency in action.

And depending on your point of view, that action could be described as either playing hardball or crossing the line into deception and intimidation.

To set the stage:

The South Florida Water Management District has gotten into a handful of skirmishes this year with environmental types. The executive director called the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service a bunch of "tin-eared bureaucrats,'' and the agency described a Caloosahatchee River Watch group forum as "one-sided detractors in pursuit of an agenda without facts to support it'' even before the forum was held.

There was also a dust-up with Audubon Florida and a disagreement with a former county commissioner in Lee County.

Maybe you say the district is overstepping its role by publicly criticizing other organizations, or maybe you believe it has every right to aggressively push its side of the story. That's a legitimate debate.

What happened last week, however, is beyond the pale.

An attorney for the Everglades Law Center made a public records request, seeking the email addresses of everyone the district has been contacting in its PR crusade. This was a perfectly legal and, frankly, run-of-the-mill request.

Except the water management district responded by sending emails to everyone on the list, saying they had reason to be fearful for their privacy and suggesting the attorney could be selling the list to outside groups. The message also included the email address for the attorney, Lisa Interlandi of Palm Beach.

"What they're doing is attempting to silence detractors,'' Interlandi said. "This kind of action can influence the willingness of people to participate in the public process. Nobody wants to be attacked by their own government, so the message they're sending is to be quiet and stay out of their business.

"Their approach is contrary to the way our government should be operating.''

A spokesman for the district told Mary Ellen Klas of the Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau that the agency was simply alerting people that their email address had been obtained without their consent.

That is, in a word, nonsense.

Whenever someone contacts a government agency via email in Florida, they are notified that their correspondence is now part of public record. In other words, the agency's email was unnecessary because everyone on the list had already been alerted to the possibility.

So why would the water district send it?

"I don't see the purpose of that email other than it was an attempt to have a chilling effect on citizens making public records requests,'' said Barbara Petersen of the First Amendment Foundation. "It was totally inappropriate.''

No laws were broken here. No First Amendment rights were violated. But it's hard to view this as anything other than an attempt at intimidation. By your state government. Against a private citizen.

The district threw out terms like "invasion of privacy" and suggested Interlandi might have nefarious motives, even though the public records request fell completely within her job description.

At best, it was an unseemly attack on Interlandi.

At worst, it was a warning for anyone else thinking about crossing swords with a state agency.

"Their motives were extremely transparent,'' Interlandi said. "Our government should be responsive to public requests. At the very least, it should be respectful.

"They've been extremely aggressive in responding to what they say is inaccurate info. They're operating more along the lines of a smear campaign instead of providing legitimate government information.''

So did the 5,000-person email blast come back to haunt Interlandi?

"I heard from a handful of colleagues, and I got four emails inquiring about why I made the public records request,'' Interlandi said. "And two of those people said they had been attacked, too.''