by Joe Wilhelm Jr.
The City’s Office of General Counsel admitted Wednesday that it “dropped the ball” recently, and should have done a better job in meeting some public records requests from local media.
The City’s Ethics Commission held a Legislative Subcommittee meeting Wednesday to hear complaints about access to public records and give City officials a chance to address these complaints. The subcommittee’s purpose is to evaluate the current city code and determine if changes should be made and present those findings to the full Ethics Commission.
“The document request got bounced around and we made a mistake,” said Cindy Laquidara, chief deputy general counsel, “which is why we settled the case. It should have been responded to faster, the documents should’ve been produced.”
The request Laquidara was referring to was made by Folio Weekly and contributing writer Marvin Edwards, who authored an Oct. 7 article, “Stadium Scam.” The article detailed the alternative news weekly’s attempts to gain access to information on the renovation of the Gator Bowl for the arrival of the Jaguars and the Super Bowl Host Committee.
The article explained that Folio Weekly was prevented access to certain documents until it hired an attorney to assist with the request, which Laquidara referred to when she mentioned the City settled with Folio Weekly.
“This Ethics Committee received a letter from Steve Powell of the General Counsel’s Office,” said Edwards. “One of the things he said was we made a number of false statements. That is equal to accusing us of lying. Everything we write, we have documented. We didn’t appreciate the comment made by Mr. Powell.”
The letter Edwards referred to was written after the Ethics Commission requested that the OGC respond to the accusations made in the Oct. 7 article and Powell sent that letter to then Ethics Commission Chair Jay Williams.
Powell explained in the letter, “...neither the (Ethics) Commission nor the public should be left with any doubt as to the City of Jacksonville’s commitment to comply with the law. The City and the Office of General Counsel are committed to full, transparent compliance with the Florida Public Records Law and would not knowingly conceal any non-exempt, non-confidential records or deny any member of the public access to them.”
Powell further stated, “(The Folio Weekly) article overstates what was requested initially and makes it appear that the City concealed records. Moreover, it inaccurately relates the City’s efforts to otherwise respond to the requests. To the contrary, the City’s response to all of the requests in question were prompt and in good faith.”
Powell was one of five attorneys from the OGC to be involved with the public records requests made by Folio Weekly, and, according to Laquidara, that was four too many.
“If you look at our response, we had too many attorneys involved. “That’s something in the ultimate recommendation that I’m going to take away from this is that we have to have a point person and maybe one or two people supporting them to handle these requests.”
The OGC doesn’t handle all public records requests. They handle requests from its office and questions about exemptions from other City agencies, but each agency is responsible for their own records requests. Laquidara is also trying to help process the requests better.
“I’ve developed a form response letter that I try to get out to the agencies to use,” said Laquidara. “It has a checklist on it to make sure you have covered everything. The request is also attached to this list, so we have procedures in place for records requests.”
Some of the subcommittee members weren’t pleased with the access that was provided to Folio Weekly and other media outlets.
“Looking at this, we can all agree that we should have done a better job,” said subcommittee member Scott Shine.
“We need to make sure the spirit of Chapter 119 (Florida’s Public Records Law) is complied with,” said Committee member Pat Sher.
One way the City could improve its public records access might be to update its records keeping system.
“We have a very old system for filing documents,” said Laquidara. “It’s not a scan and store system, so it is hard to find older documents sometimes.”
Something the subcommittee hopes isn’t too hard to find is its identity.
“Would you describe the Ethics Commission as an investigative body?” asked Shine.
“I would say you are more of a deliberative body and at times you investigate ethics complaints,” said Laquidara. “I wouldn’t say you are solely investigative.”
The discussion exceeded the two hours allotted for the meeting, so the subcommittee will continue the discussion at its April 8 meeting.
“I’d like to talk about what our jurisdiction currently is and what we can do as a commission,” said Braxton Gillam, chair of the subcommittee. “And have an open discussion about what kind of suggestions we might want to make to change things if we don’t already have jurisdictional power.”