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Expert: City policy violates state law

By ALLISON SHIRK

Staff Writer

NORTH PORT — The city of North Port put in writing a public records policy that would limit the number of public records an individual or news organization can request in one day — a move that Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation out of Tallahassee, said is an “impermissible barrier to your constitutional right of access.”

Petersen said this week that North Port may not impose any condition in the public records policy that could hinder access.

“The Florida courts have been quite clear — an agency cannot impose any rule or condition on our right of access that operates to restrict or circumvent that right,” Petersen said. “… This is bad public policy and if challenged in court, would undoubtedly be struck down.”

After the city was approached by the Sun Tuesday about the possible implications of the new policy, city spokesman Josh Taylor said the city is going to hold off on enacting it, and the policy will be revisited at the Oct. 12 City Commission meeting.

The records policy, which city commissioners voted 4-1 in favor of on Sept. 14, with Commissioner Linda Yates dissenting, states no charges — other than duplication costs — will be made if a public records request takes less than 15 minutes to complete. If a request takes more time to locate and fulfill, then the city will assess a “special service charge” that will be calculated to the nearest quarter of an hour exceeding 15 minutes.

What City Attorney Mark Moriarty and City Clerk Helen Raimbeau brought to the commission as a resolution was different from what commissioners ultimately decided to pass last week. Moriarty and Raimbeau outlined a policy that allowed for up to 30 minutes of unpaid time to the public records requester. The original resolution stated each individual could only use 30 minutes per day.

At the direction and request of Commissioner Cheryl Cook, the commission amended the original

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resolution to allow requests free of charge that do not exceed 15 minutes, and she said that each “entity,” or news organization, should not be allowed to utilize more than 15 minutes per day. That means multiple reporters will be treated as one entity for any given news agency.

Mayor Rhonda DiFranco said she also agreed that 30 minutes was too long. Yates said she did not.

“We are a huge city, we have a lot of documents ready to send over … in format … but sometimes it does take a little bit to send over,” Yates said.

Moriarty said Tuesday that if Petersen thinks the new policy is cause for concern, then he does, too.

“We will definitely take a look at it again,” Moriarty said. “As a city, county, public lawyer, the public’s right to access of records is most important. The intent of it was not to deny anybody’s rights.”

When a public records request comes into the city clerk’s office, Raimbeau said “historically,” it has always been about 30 minutes that the city provides people for free.

“The city cannot limit the number of public record requests made by anyone — citizen or reporter — on a daily basis,” Petersen said. “The law doesn’t contain a definition of what is an ‘extensive’ use of an agency’s resources, so they (the city) can define that term for themselves — I’ve heard definitions as short as 15 minutes and as long as two hours; 30 minutes seems the most common — but they should have a justification for the definition.” According to Florida Statute 119.07, a city can determine what it deems is a “reasonable” amount of time to search for and provide a public record. Cook said she thought it should be 15 minutes instead of 30 because “one news entity will send us four different questions from four different reporters and it is the same item.” Cook did not state what news entity that is, and she did not return the Sun’s request for comment this week.

Florida Sunshine Laws also state that a person does not have to provide his name or reason for wanting the public records, so Petersen said it would be difficult for the city to track how many minutes each person or entity was using if he made requests anonymously.

“Think of this — You (media) and your reporters make your ‘allotted’ public record request before noon. Then at 3 (p.m.) there’s a breaking news story with grave public interest concerns — do you have to wait until the following day to make a request for those records? It’s absurd.”

Email: ashirk@sun-herald.com

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