Over the years I’ve made thousands of public records requests and conducted hundreds of audits. Unfortunately, the performance of most public agencies and state contractors that are subject to Florida’s exceptionally broad open government laws has been poor. Some of those poor performances have lead to litigation intended to enforce the public’s Right To Know.
In almost every case, those agencies and contractors have refused to acknowledge their misconduct. Sometimes their response has been to plead ignorance. Something along the lines of “we didn’t know we were subject to open government laws.” Other times their response has been indignation. They seem to believe that it is unfair for a member of the public to expect that public officials comply with the laws of this State.
Still other times, public officials will come out swinging. Since they have at their disposal our tax dollars they would rather engage in protracted and expensive litigation rather than work to correct the problems exposed by an audit conducted by FogWatch.
Recently, however, I was exceedingly surprised and pleased by the response of one agency in particular: the Sheriff of Collier County.
In a recent in-person audit I visited the offices of the Sheriff of Collier County, Kevin Rambosk, and I found the response to my public records request to be problematic. In particular I was told by one of the Sheriff’s staff members that my public records request must be made in writing.
As my readers know by now, such a demand is inconsistent with the Florida statutes and prevailing case law. So, as has been my custom for some time, I planned to file a lawsuit against the Sheriff to enforce the public’s Right to Know.
That usually happens pretty quickly. Once an audit has concluded I review the responses and in particular the denials of access. I scrutinize the facts of each case including my notes as well as audio and video recordings. If the facts of the case are very clear then I usually file suit within a few weeks. Sometimes much sooner.
In the case of the Sheriff of Collier County, however, something truly extraordinary happened. Stephanie Spell, Director of the Sheriff’s Community Outreach Division contacted me.
Apparently, a supervisor in the Sheriff’s office heard about the demand of one of her subordinates and realized there was a problem. My understanding from Ms. Spell is that upon hearing about my encounter, the suprevisor thought of FogWatch and had the offending staff member look at my picture, which is prominently placed on the blog. Once they confirmed that I was the person whose public records request was unlawfully denied they took action to make amends.
Within hours Ms. Spell had contacted me by email and acknowledged that the conduct of the Sheriff’s office was inconsistent with Florida’s Public Records Act. The Sheriff’s staff made no attempt to blame-shift, or accuse me of engaging in “gotcha” conduct. In stead, they owned what had happened and apologized. They also made a concerted effort to make records available as quickly and easily as possible.
To my knowledge, I have never had any direct contact with the Sheriff of Collier County, so I do not have an informed opinion about how he leads his deputies or his non-sworn employees. I can say, however, that I don’t believe that I’ve ever seen any agency take such quick action to correct a public records issue. Nor have I ever seen an agency take full responsibility for their actions. Frankly, it was almost breathtaking.
Here is the text of Ms. Spell’s email:
Dear Mr. Chandler,
We believe that you or a representative from your organization may have requested a public record from our agency today and that you were asked to submit your request in writing in a form that was provided to you. We also understand that the records member indicated that the written form was required. You were told incorrect information by our member. Our procedure is to provide the form if the requestor asks to submit a written list of records requested or the records member may need to write down the request to aid in record retrieval. We apologize for this action and would like you to know that the records member that you encountered has been counseled as to the correct and lawful procedure in handling public records requests. Our records members received refresher training on this matter just last week and this was taken into account when remediating the member you encountered today.
We greatly value and respect the broad open records laws of our state and believe they are in place to serve our citizens and community with the transparency of government that they deserve.
If you feel your public records request from today remains unfulfilled, I would like to facilitate that request within any lawful means.
Thank you and if I can be of further service, please do not hesitate to contact me.
This encounter and the subsequent response by Ms. Spell are instructive. First, as I pointed out to Ms. Spell in our telephone conversation, we are all human and we make mistakes. I understand that given enough opportunities we will all make mistakes and providing incorrect information is almost a certainty at some point.
Second, I pointed out to Ms. Spell that my ambition is not to catch agencies breaking the law. My goal is observe and to simply document what happens. I don’t make anyone break the law.
Third, I have no desire to be punitive when I encounter conduct that is inconsistent with Florida’s Public Records Act. I want to encourage access. Sometimes that requires litigation, but at other times my goal may be achieved through reasoned discourse.
Given the response of the Sheriff of Collier County, litigation would be pointless. The Sheriff and his staff have made it clear that they understand their obligations and want to do better and I want to help them do that.
At the conclusion of our discussion Ms. Spell invited me to contact her directly if I encounter another problem with her agency. Moreover, she was exceedingly receptive to suggestions about how to avoid problems in the future.
Of course, it would have been best if there had been no problem in the first place, but as I’ve mentioned we are all human and we all make mistakes. That is inevitable. What was so unique about this particular agency was their willingness to take immediate corrective action.
As my readers know I’ll file suit to enforce Florida’s Public Records Act at the drop of a hat – and I’ll drop the hat. But when an agency is clearly trying to do the right thing I want to be first in line to sing their praises. I want to be a resource and not simply be an adversary. I just wish more agencies would follow the lead of the Sheriff of Collier County. When you’re wrong, admit it, correct the problem and move on.
That is the mature, responsible response to mistakes. It also avoids litigation and builds the public’s trust. Someone seems to get that. Finally.