In a recent television interview former School Board of Polk County member and former Mayor of Lakeland, Frank O’Reilly objected to my advocacy for open government when he described my methods as “gotcha” activism. That’s an objection that I’ve heard many times and it’s nonsense.
As a member of the School Board of Polk County O’Reilly has been on the receiving end of three public records lawsuits that I’ve filed (and won) since 2008. So it may be understandable that he does not like my activism or me. Of course there would have been no litigation had the School Board of Polk County simply complied with Florida’s Public Records Act.
Many public officials have expressed similar sentiments. They seem to believe that I somehow “trick” them into breaking the law and then file suit.
Such a position would be something akin to claiming that a State Trooper sitting up under an interstate overpass with a radar gun makes motorists speed. In reality all the State Trooper is doing is to document what motorists are doing on their own. The State Trooper does not make anyone speed. In fact, one could argue that his presence acts as a deterrent to unsafe driving.
What FOGWatch does is much the same. It is true that we audit the compliance of public agencies with Florida’s Public Records Act and Sunshine laws. We make many public records requests and from time to time attempt to attend public meetings. The response of public officials is entirely their own. We don’t make anyone do anything.
I am reminded of the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. when he wrote, “We who in engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive.”
It is remarkable that so many public officials chaff at the idea that anyone would question what they do. They are accustomed to being obeyed and asking the questions. Of course they have no problem engaging in “gotcha” law enforcement or code enforcement. In fact, testing regular citizens for compliance with the law is a well-established government technique. “Hypocritical” seems like an understatement.
I make no apologies for asking state and local government agencies to comply with the law. If they don’t like the litigation that sometimes follows, then they should just obey the law. That’s what they demand from us.