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Posted in: Columnist, Opinion

Another Public Records Request "Refused"

Posted on August 18, 2011

Another Public Records Request "Refused"


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 “records@talgov.com” 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.

8 Responses to Another Public Records Request "Refused"

  1. I'm tired too! Reply

    August 18, 2011 at 11:42 pm

     You’re flat wrong on the Commissioners & Mayor.  
    They don’t know what is going on.  They do know they don’t want to know how much they don’t know.
    Go down the list:
    1.  If these are the same attorneys working for the city who interpreted cell towers as not being antennas on behalf of Mayor Mark’s client, AT&T, then you know he won’t do anything.  
    2.  If these are the same city attorneys who approved Commissioner Gil Ziffer’s illegal appointment to avoid a legal city election to get his commission seat, you can bet he won’t do anything.
    3.  Are the same attorneys who got virtually 100% approval on everything brought before the planning commission, when Nancy Miller was there, going to get anything other than “business as usual” now that she’s a commissioner?  She hasn’t shown any fire for public rights.
    4.  Commissioner Mark Mustian might have taken a closer look and addressed this issue in his unique sideways manner, before he got burned out. Are we retired yet?  
    5.  Andrew Gillum…you’re willing to change a fundamental buy-local program on a casual, unresearched, non-public-noticed whim.  Are you willing to be man enough to bite off something that might bite back?

  2. Dl Reply

    August 19, 2011 at 3:21 am

    please tell me you are going to pursue this more and get us some answers…  

  3. Amber Reply

    September 1, 2011 at 5:28 pm

    Have to tried to file a whistle blower suit regarding the fraudulent charge of $11,600 and the theft of your rights to request public records?

  4. Curtise

    Curtise Reply

    September 6, 2011 at 1:43 pm

    The city is paying law clerks $100 per hour?  

  5. Cedric Jones Reply

    September 21, 2011 at 2:55 am

    I’m late on the comments, but the city’s information systems services has not been duped into cooperation, they are, in fact, good or bad, a willing participant.  If you know something is not above board, then pressure from above should not compel you to follow along that path.

  6. David C. Miles Reply

    November 3, 2011 at 1:38 am

    I would be willing to bet we have as high utility rates as any city in the country, if not very close.  It only stands to reason that with all that is going on construction wise, (The Cascades, Gaines Street, a new City building out at Tom Brown Park) that they need mo money.  Show me the money.  By golly, we can’t look at their records.  Another example of government gone wild.  You ought to read the other articles at Tallahassee Reports.

  7. Arkirby3 Reply

    November 8, 2011 at 3:23 pm

    The missing element to this article is, the State statute requires the documents to be published and reviewable upon request at no cost to the request or. The statute also makes allowance for personal imaging equipment be allowed at the time of review. When the same thing happened to me, I toted a laptop with a hand scanner for mine. Next time I will carry a scanner with auto document feed. Worked great!

  8. Webnellie Reply

    May 7, 2012 at 1:31 pm

    You realize Matt Lutz is literally in bed with the Tallahassee Democrat.

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