Deltona is getting so many requests for public records that City Clerk Joyce Raftery spends 75 percent of her time fulfilling them.
Raftery hasn’t been able to finalize minutes of the City Commission meetings — another part of her job — since February.
Florida has a very broad and sweeping law on public records. In addition to regular documents like the minutes of public meetings, the law makes emails, text messages and even public officials’ Twitter comments public documents.
Government watchdogs and critics — sometimes hostile — have the right to access the voluminous array of records that exist on paper, on computers, or in cyberspace.
That has created an immense workload in Deltona for the city clerk and her staff.
By law, those who request public records don’t have to identify themselves. According to Raftery, however, members of the city staff believe the majority of the recent requests have been made by two individuals, using at least 10 different email addresses.
“I truly think it’s two people, based on everything we’re looking at and what we see,” Raftery told The Beacon.
She said requests made by two or three people over the past three or four months fill five file boxes.
“That’s not including the regular public-records requests we get,” Raftery said.
Raftery said the tenure of former City Manager Jane Shang seemed to inspire an increase in public-records requests.
“It all started in 2016, after Jane Shang got here,” she said.
During her time as Deltona’s chief administrator, Shang became a lightning rod for those upset with her management style, her alleged retaliation against critics, and her violations of election laws.
Shang entered into a deferred-prosecution agreement with the State Attorney’s Office, acknowledging she had given Deltona City Hall as her home address on voter records and, as a result, had improperly voted in city elections in 2016 and 2018.
After The Center at Deltona opened in December 2017, critics of city government filed innumerable requests for records related to bookings and expenses.
The $10 million Center at Deltona, which morphed from a community gathering spot to an events venue, has fallen short of its goal of taking in revenues sufficient to cover its operating costs and its capital debt.
Not only disgruntled citizens request a lot of records. Elected officials do it, too.
A former city commissioner, Christopher Alcantara, among others, made numerous requests for public records in search of improper actions in Deltona’s governance, including in the city’s contracting. Alcantara was elected in 2016 and resigned in 2019 when he moved out of Deltona.
Such was Alcantara’s demand for information that the City Commission convened in a special session between Christmas and New Year’s in 2017 to consider new policies on public-records requests. They suggested, for example, that city officials pay for copying the materials they request and for the staff time required to fulfill the requests.
Now, city officials who request records apart from timely agenda-related materials, must pay for copies of them, just as anyone else is required to do.
Deltona’s 2020-21 budget notes the City Clerk’s Office processed 550 requests for public records during the current fiscal year, which runs Oct. 1 through Sept. 30. That’s up 9 percent from the 507 requests in the 2019-20 fiscal year.
Raftery and her staff must examine each document or item requested to see if it contains information that is subject to exemption from disclosure, including, for example, Social Security numbers, or the names and addresses of law-enforcement officers and other first responders.
The law allows the redaction of such information, because it could subject individuals to danger or harassment.
As city clerk, Raftery is the chief custodian and guardian of Deltona’s records.
She said she and three others in her office often work overtime — and still, she says, they fall behind, especially in other duties.
“I never work just 40 hours,” Raftery said, noting she often stays at City Hall well past the time when other workers have left.
One change Raftery said she has made is no longer taking home work from the office, a concession to her family and “for my health and sanity.”
Besides honoring requests for public records, Raftery and her subordinates must also compile the agendas of upcoming meetings of the City Commission and other city panels, such as the Planning and Zoning Board, the Economic Development Advisory Board, and the Affordable Housing Advisory Committee.
Compiling, cataloging and storing public records and honoring requests for access to them are not all of Raftery’s duties. After each meeting of an official city body, the clerk must draft the minutes — a step-by-step summary of the proceedings.
“I’m five months behind on minutes,” Raftery said.
In other words, the minutes of meetings of the City Commission and other boards since February are not available — because they do not yet exist.
The growing demand for access to Deltona’s public records prompted the City Commission to authorize Raftery to hire another staffer for the current 2020-21 fiscal year, but the requests for records are not letting up.
“It’s just gotten worse,” Raftery said.
What are public records?
Public records include a wide variety of items: documents, papers, letters, maps, books, audio and video recordings, photographs, films, data-processing software, and other miscellaneous materials that are part of the conduct of official business.
Public records may also be emails, texts, tweets, and other digital communications, as well as notes scribbled by one elected official or government employee and passed to another during a meeting.
These are likewise subject to release and inspection by anyone asking to see them.
It’s the law
To borrow a slogan used on bumper stickers to encourage drivers and passengers to use their seat belts, “It’s the law.”
“Every person has the right to inspect or copy any public record made or received in connection with the official business of any public body, officer, or employee of the state, or persons acting in their behalf, … [including] the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government; … counties, municipalities, and districts; and each constitutional officer, board, and commission,” reads Article 1, Section 24(a) of the Florida Constitution.
A legislative act echoes and expands upon the constitution.
“Every person who has custody of a public record shall permit the record to be inspected and copied by any person desiring to do so, at any reasonable time, under reasonable conditions, and under supervision by the custodian of the public records,” reads Section 119.07(1)(a) of the Florida Statutes.
Under the law, anyone requesting public records is not required to identify himself or herself or to state the reason for the request.
Although the requester may remain anonymous, doing so may cause difficulty in contacting the requester when his or her request is ready for inspection or pickup.
Most governmental agencies charge a nominal fee — 15 cents per page, for example — to make copies of records. Sometimes, however, that charge goes unpaid.
If the same person returns to make a second or subsequent request, the clerk may require the person — even if anonymous — to pay a deposit or to pay in advance.
“The agency can require the cost upfront,” Virginia Hamrick, staff attorney of the Florida First Amendment Foundation, told Deltona officials.
On July 12, Deltona officials had a videoconference with First Amendment Foundation leaders, to learn tips for dealing with the volume of records requests.
“I would say, ‘Don’t have your staff pulling the records until you know that the costs are going to be covered,’” Florida First Amendment Foundation Executive Director Pamela Marsh said.
In some cases, a governmental agency may go beyond the 15-cents-per-page copying charge, in the case of requests that require an extraordinary amount of staff time.
Marsh noted one instance in which a Florida government entity was set to bill a requester some $43,000 for public records. The agency justified the charge by describing the request as one that would require “extensive use” of the agency’s resources.
Marsh worked with the requester to specify the records actually sought, and thus the bill was reduced to approximately $1,700.
Such negotiations can help both the requester and the agency, Marsh suggested. She offered a tip.
“Have the clerk help the requester to narrow the search to bring the cost down,” she suggested.