Special To Citizen Media Pensacola:
The First Amendment Foundation has asked for a formal investigation into whether city officials broke the state’s public records law when it told a Tallahassee Democrat reporter the records he requested didn’t exist.
On Oct. 18, Democrat reporter Jeff Burlew asked for “all of City Manager Rick Fernandez’s text messages from Sept. 26, 2016 to Sept. 30, 2016.” The city’s public records officer, which is under the city treasurer-clerk office, replied that “no information was found.”
City Spokeswoman Alison Faris later said there were no records responsive to the request.
“We ask you, as City Attorney, to perform a thorough investigation into this issue and report to the public the process by which city employees attempted to comply with Mr. Burlew’s public records request,” First Amendment Foundation President Barbara Petersen said in a letter addressed to City Attorney Lew Shelley.
The letter also was sent to Mayor Andrew Gillum and Treasurer-Clerk Jim Cooke.
Petersen explained that the Florida Supreme Court has defined a public record as anything made or received by an agency “intended to perpetuate, communicate, or formalize knowledge” having to do with public business.
That includes all text messages sent or received by a government official even on personal communication devices, she said. That would include the text messages in which Fernandez asked a lobbyist with Adam Corey’s firm Unconventional Strategies for four Florida State University football tickets to a home game against the University of North Carolina on Oct. 1, 2016.
The box seat tickets were valued at about $500 each.
Corey and members of his firm regularly represented clients before the City Commission.
The text messages are clearly public records because they are directly related to evidence of Fernandez’s professional judgment and ability to do his job, Petersen said.
“They also directly contradict earlier public statements made by Fernandez and raise serious questions about his veracity,” Petersen said.
The city had a duty to thoroughly search for those records, she said.
If Fernandez wasn’t asked, the city was derelict in its constitutional duty, she said. If Fernandez was asked and denied having the requested records, then he violated the law, she said.
The Democrat obtained the requested text messages after the Florida Commission on Ethics subpoenaed them as part of its investigation of an ethics complaint filed against Fernandez.
The city has still not provided the records to the Democrat.
“We don’t think it an overstatement to say the reputation of the City of Tallahassee is in peril and its citizens are losing confidence in their government,” Petersen says in the closing of her letter. “The only way to regain that confidence, and change the climate within City Hall, is through transparency and accountability, not obfuscation and secrecy.”
Contact Schweers at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeffschweers.