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Tampa fire chief ordered police called on a local journalist asking for records

As we prepare to commemorate Sunshine Week, the encounter involving a Tampa Bay Times reporter illustrates a need for better handling of records requests in Florida.
 
Fire Chief Barbara Tripp initiated a call to Tampa Police after a Tampa Bay Times reporter sought public records last month at Tampa Fire Rescue's downtown headquarters. Tripp ordered a department dispatcher to summon the cops. A 911 call was placed by a department dispatcher a minute later.
Fire Chief Barbara Tripp initiated a call to Tampa Police after a Tampa Bay Times reporter sought public records last month at Tampa Fire Rescue's downtown headquarters. Tripp ordered a department dispatcher to summon the cops. A 911 call was placed by a department dispatcher a minute later. [ ARIELLE BADER | Special to the Times ]
Published March 7|Updated March 8

Sunshine Week may be a contrived event — much like First Responder Wellness Week, National Siblings Day or National Donut Day. But it holds special significance to us. And it should for you.

It’s a weeklong opportunity beginning Sunday to note the importance of public records and open government. It also can be a chance to call out those who try to keep the public in the dark.

Let me share one chilling example. A couple of weeks ago, Tampa Bay Times reporter Justin Garcia showed up, as any individual can do, to the downtown headquarters of the Tampa Fire Rescue Department. He was interested in paperwork pertaining to a firefighter who had been terminated.

A department employee in the third-floor lobby claimed that access to public records doesn’t work that way. There is an online portal where Justin needed to make his request, she told him.

Justin had already done that. But he also apparently knew the ins and outs of Florida’s records law better than the gatekeepers of those documents. You’d be surprised — and dismayed — how often government officials have no idea how public records laws actually work.

When Personnel Chief Robbie Northrop showed up, Justin again tried to make his case. The law permits anyone to request and view documents in person, and government agencies should comply unless there’s a good reason. Northrop left for a while. He returned, Justin said, to hammer away at the point that we wouldn’t be getting anything now since we had made the online request.

Justin cited Florida’s Chapter 119, which he had called up on his phone, while seated on the lobby couch. It says, “all state, county and municipal records are open for personal inspection and copying by any person.” According to Justin, this appeared to further irk Northrop, who repeatedly insisted he knew the law, when it was obvious that he didn’t.

“I couldn’t even finish my sentence,” Justin told me. “He kept interrupting.”

If you have met Justin Garcia, he’s a thoughtful and sharp reporter. We hired him about a year ago from Creative Loafing because we were tired of him scooping us. He’s dogged, but he does not exude in-your-face intensity. Rudeness is not his style, and it’s part of the reason sources generally respond to him.

When Justin tried to ask for a clearer explanation, Northrop ended the discussion. That would be enough questioning of authority, apparently.

Northrop then asked an office worker, according to Justin, to “go ahead and call TPD on him.”

Let that soak in. A reporter from the Tampa Bay Times asked to see public records, and the fire department’s response was to call the cops.

Was the personnel chief trying to intimidate a journalist? Did he believe Justin’s attempt to get answers had crossed the line into criminal behavior? Did he not like Justin’s long hair? Northrop wouldn’t agree to be interviewed by the Times.

In the initial days after the lobby encounter, it remained a mystery how the police were notified. It took rounds and rounds of questions over nine days to extract the details.

Northrop had told the office worker — who witnessed the entire thing — to call the police. But she claimed in a written statement that she didn’t have time.

So someone marched over to fire Chief Barbara Tripp’s office and urged her to initiate the call.

And Tampa’s top firefighter did.

Justin had left by the time the cavalry arrived.

Mayor Jane Castor’s spokesperson Adam Smith acknowledged that none of this should have happened.

Smith told us that Northrop isn’t normally the custodian of records and isn’t used to handling requests from the public or from reporters. He said the personnel chief came to the lobby because he was informed that Justin was creating a disturbance.

Afterward, Northrop collected three brief statements from fire department staff who were present. In one, a captain did not call out issues with the way Justin had comported himself, only to say that he was persistent and insistent. (Good journalistic qualities.) Two lower-ranking employees described him as combative and agitated. Justin’s demeanor was the reason the police had to be involved, according to Northrop.

“Mr. Garcia persisted in being argumentative and repetitive and refused to accept the answer and leave,” wrote Northrop in his personal memo to Smith in response to inquiries from the Times. Justin said he never raised his voice.

Tripp, according to Justin, had waved politely to him in the lobby when he first arrived but wasn’t present for any of the interaction with Northrop. When Tripp told dispatchers to summon the police, she also used the word “argumentative,” according to an audio recording of the phone call that we obtained. She didn’t mention that Justin was a reporter but an “individual” who was being “unruly towards personnel.”

No matter how you want to spin it, though, journalists are supposed to ask questions and seek explanations. That may rankle people in power, but it doesn’t constitute an unruly disturbance.

Think about the alarming message the episode sends to all Tampa Bay area journalists when asking too many questions can lead to this.

“No one should ever call the police on a reporter even if that reporter is being belligerent, obnoxious and aggressive,” said Smith.

Or, for the sake of total clarity here, when he is being none of those things.

About 90 minutes after Tripp ordered the police called, Smith provided the records to the Times.

“It was a misunderstanding,” Smith said. “It sounds like we need to have a conversation about that.”

“We have 4,600 employees,” he added later. “He (Northrop) has been in this particular job for a month, and we need to make sure our employees are trained so they know what is appropriate and what’s not appropriate.”

And what’s the excuse for Tripp, who has been running the department for almost four years?

As we recognize Sunshine Week, let’s hope government agencies throughout Florida have meaningful conversations with their employees, top to bottom, about complying with the state’s public records law. We’d be happy to sponsor a refresher course.

If you’re wondering, the Times asked to view any video surveillance showing the lobby encounter between Justin and the personnel chief.

City officials initially denied the request — citing security reasons. Then they told us no such video exists.

This time the police were left out of it.