City Attorney charges $11,600 to find “missing” emails by looking through 125,900– one at a time.
Following the popular article, “Billion Dollar Theft Planned by City,” the role of Assistant City Attorney Linda Hudson became a focus for further inquiry. Toward that end, I requested copies of her city emails from the time frame of that article through the present, per Florida’s Public Records Act.
Emails were the only documents requested, as they are purely digital and require minimum computer resources to locate, search, sort, review, copy or send. Past requests of a similar nature came with a reasonable city technology fee of $25, usually overnight.
This request became an entirely different story. Following a commitment from “firstname.lastname@example.org” to begin the request and identify costs, the City Attorney’s influence took over. In the meantime, I paid the quoted $69.24 “technology charge” for sorting out the emails from the city’s computer.
With no advance notification as to additional costs, I received a $500 charge along with information that an army of law clerks was spending $100/hour manually reviewing and searching emails for my request. The total expected charge to me for this search and review was quoted at $11,600. The lack of notice and the manual method of searching were both surprising. Something was up.
This was, of course, a scheme to evade the requirements of Florida Public Records Law and to refuse to provide the records as requested. Until payment is made on the first un-warranted $500 charge, no further record requests will be performed for me, and no records released. They had effectively erected a cost barrier, however false the premise for the charges. To put it bluntly, they refused to provide the records.
THE SEARCH FOR LINDA HUDSON’S COURT NOTES
Per claims by Lewis Shelley in the City Attorney’s Office, and Matt Lutz in the Treasurer-Clerk’s Office, each of more than 125,000 emails from my request have to be manually pulled up, read, reviewed for content, and evaluated by law clerks under their direction. They have suggested it could be completed in 20 weeks, as long as I keep paying.
These clerks are ostensibly looking for copies of very specialized documents allowed as exemptions to the Public Records Act known as Attorney Work Product. In previous, similar searches, the assistant city attorney withheld 140 separate “attorney work product” emails, only to have every one later released as unqualified. The courts have expressly ruled that “embarrassment” of the author is not a legislatively-defined exemption.
In order to be temporarily exempt under Florida Law, attorney work product documents have to be written exclusively to reflect a legal strategy or theory for immediately- pending litigation. The parties to the matter must be named, and the document may not have “gone public”. Emails, with their ease of forwarding, are unlikely to be private, and no control exists to be sure they haven’t “gone public.” Genuine litigation strategy is not generally shared by email.
In reality, Ms. Hudson has all her emails sorted into folders and would have immediate knowledge of current litigation (She authors a monthly update on pending litigation topics for city managers.) Any truly-qualifying “attorney work product” emails that might exist would be readily identifiable for removal from the search results I’ve requested. However, such an obvious, simple solution would not further their elaborate charade to refuse delivery of public records.
A humorous, remote possibility that the City Attorney and his staff really do have to look through millions of emails every time they want to review a pending case may perhaps explain why they so frequently agree to out-of-court settlements.
WHAT ARE THEY HIDING?
This convoluted, wasteful exercise to avoid releasing public records from an assistant city attorney is one more example of the questionable government practiced downtown these days. It is no less than a violation of the Florida Public Records Act. But, it could be far more serious than that.
This incident puts a spotlight on the City Attorney and his staff: We have a private domain operating within City Hall, actively working to evade scrutiny as well as responsibility to the public. How many laws are being circumvented? What rights are being trampled? What shady deals are going on? Without access to our public records, we can’t know.
Further, our new Interim Treasurer-Clerk may have bought into their deception. He has failed to respond to multiple inquiries on this request. Public records distribution is a function of his office.
Another concern arises: If the City’s Information Systems Services (computer services) is duped into cooperating with this secrecy, there does exist the possibility that crucial public records could be disappearing, with no trace. We need immediate backups for long-term storage outside the city system with no possibility of erasure.
The public needs a good, hard look into our City Attorney’s Office. This kind of evasive action doesn’t occur without reason.
If you’re wondering where the City Commissioners and the Mayor are in this, they’re on vacation. And when have they ever looked into the City Attorney’s office? They know what’s going on.