The Coastal Star

Editor's Note: Contracted phone services skirt public records law

Let me say up front that this is not about the former Ocean Ridge police chief. It is not even about what led up to his more-than-$80,000 settlement with the town. This is about the right of taxpayers to know how the government they support operates.
    It should be simple: File a public records request and get a copy of the records within a reasonable amount of time, with a bill for expenses the town incurred fulfilling the request.
    Instead, a public records request filed by this newspaper in January has run into a roadblock: It seems our request cannot be fulfilled without a lawsuit being filed.
    Filing a lawsuit to get records has become so ubiquitous — consider the litigious situation in Gulf Stream — we decided to pursue these records without legal representation. It seemed like a simple request.
    All we wanted to see was a timeline of town communications leading up to the police chief’s resignation.
    I’ve worked at newspapers for most of my career and this sort of request is not uncommon. What appears to have changed in recent years is that 1) newspapers that can afford legal help no longer devote the resources to covering small towns, and 2) contracts for services have been agreed to that appear to make compliance with Florida’s records act difficult, if not impossible.
    In the case of our request for telephone logs, we discovered that Lantana, Manalapan and Ocean Ridge have contracted with phone carriers that either do not capture a log of local calls or require a subpoena before they will provide a log of any local calls.
    I’m guessing the decision makers of these towns didn’t consider this inability to get records from their carriers to be a public records concern when they entered into these contracts. And although it’s hard to imagine, they must have felt they would have no need to know who is calling their employees or what local calls their employees might be making while in the office.
Residents of Lantana, Manalapan and Ocean Ridge should demand that new contracts with their phone carrier be negotiated as soon as possible.        

Think about it: How many situations can you think of where knowledge of the source, timing and frequency of calls into and out of a town hall might shed light on decisions that impact its citizens? I doubt I’m the only taxpayer who believes this information should be a public record.
    I’ve been in touch with records experts in private practice and with the First Amendment Foundation and all agree that a provision in Florida Statute 119.0701 explains that a private company providing services on behalf of a public agency must comply with the requirements of the public records law.
But apparently, it’s not that simple. Ocean Ridge’s town attorney, Ken Spillias, cites case law outlining when a private entity under contract with a public agency falls within the purview of the Public Records Act.
In the case of these three towns, he maintains the law says the phone carriers do not, and adds, “If a party believes that determination to be incorrect the proper action would be to file a lawsuit against the carriers since they are the creators and custodians of those documents.”
    Right back to square one: the filing of lawsuits. Sigh.
    What seemed like a straightforward request for public records has turned into a tedious four-month process involving attorneys, hourlong calls to telephone carriers, email exchanges with public record experts and bad jokes about The Coastal Star being “the enemy” of the town and its elected officials.
    We are not the enemy. We are citizens and taxpayers. Our request was not extreme or malicious. Access to public records is not a joke.
    As taxpayers, you have the right to know how the government you support operates. Demand it.
— Mary Kate Leming, Editor

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Comment by Mindi Lambert on May 23, 2015 at 10:38pm
Hello Coastalstar Fans,

I am humbled to read I am not alone, at least in the hunt for a better understanding of our record system. I was "arraigned" on "criminal " charges in court. This was without a written citation or notice of a citation.

The charge was leaving an accident that caused over $50.00 in damage without exchanging information. In my case, exchange of information with the bushes and a rotted road mirror that surely had at one time, been placed with good intentions. This is a mirror on A1A I suspect caused my view of the road to be blinded on a curve...but that is a subject for another blog file and issue all travelers of our coast will benefit from.

When I requested a copy of a report, I was told I didn't make one by a the Chief of Police. When insisting and requesting public records from the town record department, I was given a luetenut who gave me a partial report with no pictures and a report that is filled with errors and misleading. It also had no mention of the officer that apparently wrote the citation, at least the name that appears on the court docket in the courts as "witness".

My plea for your advise is this.... I have my phone records but would like the records from one of the above mentioned PD's. Any reason anyone can think of that I would be left in the dark or reports would be made hard to retrieve would be most appreciated;)
Comment by Isabella Ralston-Charnley on May 1, 2015 at 2:44pm

EDIT- ORDINANCE 235 WAS PASSED ON MARHC 9, 2006 - ALL PLANNING BOARDS WHO VOTED DOWN THE REDEVELOPMENT OF THE PALM BEACH OCEAN FRONT IN WERE ILLEGALLY CONSTITUTED AND ALL OF THE VOTES ARE THEREFORE NULL, VIIOD AND ULTRA VIRES

I REQUESTED AN INJUNCTION ON THE BUILDING OR 33 CONDS ON OUR ONLY COMMERCIAL SITE IN TOWN AND THE INLY PEASE OF OPEN BEACH IN THE TOWN FOR ENTERTAINT - THE WHOLE DISCUSSION ON THE PALM BEACH OCEAN FRONT IN SHOULD BE STARTED FROM THE BEGINNING WITH A LEGALLY APPOINTED PLANNING BOARD

Comment by Isabella Ralston-Charnley on May 1, 2015 at 2:37pm
I have requested the Coastal Star for years to investigate multiple violations of the Town Government of South Palm Beach and all request were ignored - violations include changing Form of Government without a referendum of the registered Voters. All boards being illegally appointed by the Town when they did not go through a Charter Mandatory Citizens Advisory Council then to add to that they wrote an Ordinance 235 dated March 28, 2009 which gave the Council the power to cherry pick and appoint all members of the Towns Boards a power not given to them b the Towns Home Rule Charter; No evaluation given by Council of the Town Manager from 2006 until 2013; Manager given an almost $10,000 without it being passed on the day before he got it and it was never discussed in Public - the Manager got over a $17,000 raise in 18 months it goes on and on.

I tried to settle these problems with the Town e-mails and question at Town Hall Meetings and I was disparaged and called a trouble maker for years and my name and character were disparaged and some residents actually believe that they have the right to hate me!! - I am not a trouble maker they are - don't blame the messenger.
It became so bad that the only option I was left with was to sue them in Federal Court Pro Se because I cannot afford a lawyer.

Where was Mary Kate Lemon during all of this !!!!?
Comment by No One Important on April 30, 2015 at 8:02pm

And if you do try and demand it (public records) you will be labeled a trouble maker, malcontent and the enemy as the coastal star has just found out.... 

I would like to mention there is a difference between requesting documents and requesting inspection of document... the first costs (average $00.25 a page) inspections are free....

Comment by Christopher O'Hare on April 30, 2015 at 4:28pm

Government demands we follow the rules under penalty of prosecution, and most everyone does. Isn't it only fair that local governments follow the rules too? 

Lawful behavior is part of the societal pact we have with each other. We also have a moral obligation to speak out when those in power abuse their authority. No municipal leader is above the law; no citizen should be admonished for seeking redress in the courts.

Comment by Isabella Ralston-Charnley on April 30, 2015 at 3:27pm

Now you know how I have felt for years trying to get Public Documents from the Town of South Palm Beach some I never ever got and one took over a year and that was the simple request for an RFP and the Town Attorneys contract!!

Comment by Christopher O'Hare on April 30, 2015 at 1:22pm

To quote Gomer Pyle, "Surprise, Surprise, Surprise."

How ironic. Now you have a little taste of how frustrating it is trying to examine public records from agencies that are determined to keep secrets.

Careful how many times you ask for any record or if you ask for too many records. The Coastal Star may join the ranks of RICO defendants apparently guilty of expecting their constitutional right to examine  public records to be respected.

If you have been labeled "the enemy" for seeking the truth for the benefit of others, well then, that is a label to be proud of.

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