Yesterday a television news crew tagged along with me while I did a short in-person audit of several public agencies in Lakeland. Rick Elmhorst of BayNews 9 asked if he and his cameraman, Calvin, could shadow me as I did my thing.
It was a very short audit, so we only visited three agencies.
The first was the Peterson state building in downtown Lakeland, which is operated by the Florida Department of Management Services (DMS). This was the first time, in my experience, that personnel at a DMS facility have responded lawfully to a public records requests. It was refreshing and I can hope that it is a harbinger of things to come. Ironically, while the DMS folks had no problem producing public records they freaked out about the news crew.
From the Peterson building we walked a couple of blocks to the Lakeland Police Department, where I asked to inspect the visitor’s log. As usual the visitor’s log was situated on a counter where any person could see and touch it. I asked the desk clerk if I could inspect and photograph the records. In the usual fashion (this is the case in about 70% of agencies) they acted like I was asking to review the nuclear launch codes.
Eventually, cooler heads prevailed at the LPD and a very polite Captain John Thomason allowed me to insect and photograph the records. Although the production of records was unlawfully tardy, the gracious demeanor of Captain Thomason was greatly appreciated.
Captain Thomason’s response to my public records request is an excellent example to other agencies. Not infrequently, I am met by folks who do not fully understand their obligations under Florida’s Public Records Act. I am not looking for minor technical violations of public records laws because significant violations are not hard to find. There is, therefore, no shortage of opportunities to litigate. Perhaps the biggest factor in determining whether litigation follows is the attitude of the public official. If I get so much as a whiff of someone trying to do the right thing, I WILL NOT SUE. Being cordial, like Captain Thomason was, is a huge factor and an inexpensive way for public agencies to avoid wasting tax dollars. So, kudos to Captain John Thomason.
The third agency we visited was the Purchasing Department for the City of Lakeland. The office upstairs was an easy pass. I asked to inspect the vendor’s visitor’s log and was given immediate access. Downstairs, however, it was a train-wreck.
Outside of the City of Lakeland Purchasing Department I saw a guard shack at the entrance to a truck-yard. Outside of the guard shack was a sign which read “Check In.”
As I approached the guard shack I was “greeted” by a man whose uniform indicated that he was an employee of a private contractor that provides security services on behalf of the City of Lakeland. I immediately announced that “I’m here to make a public records request. I’d like to inspect and photograph the visitor’s log.” The response was almost comical, were it not for the fact that it was such an egregious violation of Florida law.
What followed was a three-ring circus. Threats of arrest were made; supervisors were called; Kevin Cook, the spokesman for the City of Lakeland arrived on scene; and the police arrived. All, of course was caught on camera.
In the end, after a about a one hour delay, I was allowed to inspect and photograph the records. To his great credit, the Lakeland Police office who arrived on scene did a splendid job of deescalating the situation. He also saved the City of Lakeland several thousand dollars in legal fees.
Over all it was a fun audit. It would appear that public records compliance in Lakeland is getting better. There is, however, still lots of room for improvement.