A mayor’s email correspondence is public record in Florida, but seeing those emails can be complicated in this part of the state.
Some north central Florida towns attach a price and assorted complications to what other towns deem a simple request anyone can make and have fulfilled at no charge.
“We archive our emails for 10 years,” said Jenny Parham, the High Springs city clerk. “All I did was enter her (former Mayor Sue Weller’s) name. It brings up all her emails, and then I export them back to my email account.”
Not all the other 23 municipalities — most with populations large enough to require a mayor with substantial duties and official correspondence — WUFT requested all of the mayors’ emails for the third quarter of 2013 (July to September).
As with a constituent on a tight budget, WUFT opted at the outset not to pay any fees to fulfill the request.
Of the 24 municipalities contacted, 18 city halls sent their mayor’s email correspondence to WUFT free of charge. The others did not.
Pat Gleason, special counsel for open government in Florida’s Office of the Attorney General, said some municipalities have better systems in place than others for freely offering records to the public.
“Clearly, any time you see government agencies going out of their way — with all their responsibilities — to give their records to the public, that’s to be commended,” Gleason said.
In Belleview, Mayor Christine Dobkowski has her emails forwarded to her cellphone, city administrator Sandi McKamey said.
When Dobkowski replies to those emails, she has copies sent to McKamey so they make their way back into the city server, where they can be archived.
“Normally, we do things by hard copy or by email,” Crescent City manager Patrick Kennedy said. “But we were having trouble getting that many documents zipped up into an email.”
Crescent City exported individual messages in Microsoft Outlook and then used Dropbox, a free service used to share large files, to send them to WUFT.
“We try to do what the law requires as quickly as we can,” Kennedy said. “We are a little more constrained, personnel-wise and technology-wise here.”
Ocala fulfilled the request, but it did spark a call from Mayor Kent Guinn, who was curious about why WUFT wanted his emails. He said he’d never received such a broad request as a public servant.
One of the more interesting finds in Guinn’s correspondence was his admitting on July 1 the difficulty of composing email while driving.
Two towns, Mayo and Trenton, said no emails existed. Their mayors don’t use email to communicate about public business.
The mayor has no email address and prefers calls, according to Trenton’s website.
Some municipalities attempted to charge fees for accessing the records.
The city of Alachua requested WUFT pay $120 to find exemptions within the emails. Exemptions include private information, like medical records or open criminal investigations.
Live Oak city clerk John Gill originally quoted WUFT about $1,200 for the time and labor to sift through Mayor Garth “Sonny” Nobles’ emails for information exempt from release or needing to be removed or obscured.
Three weeks after receiving the request, Gill spoke to Nobles about information in the emails considered confidential.
Nobles said he believed nothing would need redacting, dropping the price to about $44 for the emails to be burned to a disc and mailed to WUFT. Gill declined to explore a free option like Dropbox.
Gill cited Live Oak Resolution 12-05 to justify the fees and said it was his obligation to abide by the city’s resolution.
“Gathering all the information takes man hours,” Gill said. “And that’s the reason for the charge. That’s what the resolution states that we have to do.”
Live Oak city officials weren’t trying to withhold any public records, Nobles said.
“I certainly agree with the public having access to any communication that they’re eligible to have,” he said.
The city of Newberry initially quoted WUFT $300 — $150 for two hours of work by contractor James Moore. The city’s attorneys eventually advised officials there that Bill Conrad’s emails were to be sent free of charge.
Some mayors use personal email addresses, though most use addresses affiliated with their municipalities.
Mayor Jim Farley of Crystal River uses his personal email address to conduct public business from home.
On the city’s website, two council members show a city email address, while others list personal email addresses.
Farley said a different email system is set up for city council members. Because he operates from home, he uses his personal email address and his home phone number for public business use.
Crystal River quoted WUFT $150 per hour to go through Farley’s personal emails and pull out anything related to public business.
When using a personal email address, elected officials are responsible for making sure they archive any emails deemed public information, said Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee.
“If they’re shoddy record keepers and they keep all their personal stuff commingled with their public stuff,” Petersen said, “they shouldn’t be charging the public.”
“It’s not our fault that they’re inefficient, and we shouldn’t have to bear the cost of that,” she said.
Before taking her current position in 1995, Petersen was staff attorney for the Joint Committee on Information Technology Resources of the Florida Legislature, where she worked exclusively on public records legislation and issues.
“I think that too many agencies are not considering public access when they’re designing their email systems,” Petersen said. “Too many public employees and too many public officers are not thinking about public access as they email one another.”