Over the past few years I’ve been very open about the fact that I conduct audits of public agencies (and those acting on their behalf) with Florida’s open government laws. In fact, I suspect that I do more audits than anyone else in the state. At any given time I have hundreds of public records requests out to agencies around the state.
Although I have occasionally conducted audits in person, most of my public records requests are made via email. Email has allowed me to extend my reach (from the Keys to the Panhandle) and to simultaneously check the compliance of hundreds of agencies at once. Email, also allows me to create a “paper-trail” in the event that it becomes necessary to take legal action in order to vindicate our “right to know.”
Electronic audits are, however, very labor intensive. Prior to making public records requests it is necessary to update agency contact information and, depending on the audit, that might include hundreds of contacts. Sending hundreds of individual requests takes time and of course tracking responses is the most time consuming element of an electronic audit.
The greatest downside to electronic audits is that it gives agencies excessive amounts of time to consider how they will respond. That, of course, does not accurately reflect how an agency would respond to the average citizen. I know empirically that my emails get passed around to various agency personnel who scrutinize the request and in many instances research who made the request. In one recent audit an agency opened my emailed public records request well over 100 times before responding.
Unfortunately, many agencies treat me better than the “little old lady” who might stumble in off of the street. Their compliance may be nothing more than an effort to avoid litigation so electronic audits may not accurately demonstrate an agency’s day-to-day compliance.
Because of these factors FOGWatch will be doing more in person audits. While these types of audits require substantially more time and money to conduct, they are likely much more revealing. For example, I recently spent a day in the field making requests in Manatee, Pinellas and Hillsborough Counties. The results were interesting.
In Manatee County, every agency I tested passed with flying colors. I suspect that the aggressive monitoring and subsequent litigation of Andea Mogensen and Michael Barfield have a lot to do with compliance in that part of the state. Several of the agencies that were audited in Manatee County have been on the receiving end of Mogensen and Barfield’s attention.
Pinellas and Hillsborough Counties were an entirely different matter. Every agency that was audited failed miserably. In every instance, agencies in Pinellas and Hillsborough demanded identification as a precondition of access to public records. That is, of course, unlawful. Our audit (my brother Robert was with me) included municipal, county and state agencies. We were unlawfully denied access by six agencies within a two hour period. We will, of course, be helping those agencies take remedial action to correct their unlawful policies.
This week, Robert and I will be taking our show on the road. The plan is to travel from Polk County to Jacksonville. On the way to Jacksonville we will travel via US 301 and other various state and US highways avoiding the interstate. That will allow us to stop and make public records requests as we travel North. Once we are in Jacksonville we plan to visit various public agencies within a one hour radius. When we return to Polk County we are planning to travel along the Atlantic coast in order to test compliance.
I anticipate that our road show will take us through Polk, Sumter, Marion, Alachua, Bradford, Union, Baker, Duval, Clay, Nassau, St. Johns, Flagler, Putnam, Volusia, Seminole, Lake, Orange and Osceola Counties. We’ll post the results shortly.