Sunday, November 08, 2015

"Good days for our democracy" -- T-U Editor Frank Denton

Ed's note: There is no local Ethics Commission in St. Augustine and St. Johns County, and it shows! There is also no Frank Denton!

Frank Denton: A few good days for our democracy
By Frank Denton Fri, Nov 6, 2015 @ 5:42 pm | updated Fri, Nov 6, 2015 @ 5:43 pm
Florida Times-Union
You and your fellow citizens have had a good week, even if you didn’t know it at the time.
Some of the people — in addition to your journalists — who are looking out for your right to keep an eye on your government made some good progress in ensuring your access to public records.
While the progress is incremental and still uncertain, here’s a report from three days on the front lines of democratic engagement.
The monthly meeting of the Jacksonville Ethics Commission, which exists “to provide a local forum for consideration and investigation of ethical problems and issues,” discussed our reporter Chris Hong’s revelation that a lobbyist was texting City Council members during a meeting — and influencing and coordinating votes. The commission is considering whether to support a possible ban on cellphones during meetings of public boards.
Then I was asked to brief the commission on the state of compliance with the state constitutional guarantee that “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,” except for specifically enacted exceptions.
Our reporters use the law to get public records almost every day, and I was able to say that, generally, compliance is acceptable to good — especially when an agency knows we’ve sued others to get records, as well as our attorneys’ fees.
However, I told the commission, some records-keepers try to thwart records-seekers with various tactics:
■ Ask for the citizen’s name and why they want the records (neither of which is allowed).
■ Deny the records exist. Yes, they lie (as a City Council member’s aide did about the lobbyist’s texts).
■ Destroy the records rather than hand them over. (Yes, that’s illegal.)
■ Claim non-existent exemptions. (We demand they cite the actual statute.)
■ Require unnecessary specificity about the records requested (exactly what date, for example, or what form number or how many pages).
■ Say there’s a long line of records requests (and you’re at the wrong end of it).
■ Say the records have to be redacted, and that will take weeks or months.
■ Charge an arm and a leg. (Reasonable costs are allowed by law, but some records-keepers find ways to drive up costs, into the thousands of dollars, as a way of discouraging access.)
After my summary, the commission discussed a proposal by city ethics Director Carla Miller to strengthen public records law by making violations subject to the city’s Ethics Code.
Now, the state attorney might not prosecute a minor violation because the penalty could include jail time. The change, if approved by City Council, would allow the Ethics Commission to impose a civil fine.
The proposal also would make it an ethics violation “for a person to make a false statement either willfully or negligently, about the existence of any public record.”
In my presentation, I told the commission that our biggest public-records problem is with the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office. While we don’t expect sensitive information about investigations or other exceptions, the police have been lax or even obstructive in providing crime or arrest reports, on-the-scene briefings, names of victims (even murder victims), mug shots, crime trend data, internal-affairs investigations and even interviews with police officers, commanders or subject-matter experts.
We have unfulfilled public-records requests dating back to July, way beyond reasonable compliance.
The brick wall got increasingly tall and thick under former Sheriff John Rutherford, so last spring, during our editorial board interviews of candidates to succeed him, I asked each of them about whether they would open up the Sheriff’s Office and honor the spirit and the letter of public-records laws.
Generally, the candidates made that pledge — including, in the second election, Mike Williams, whom our editorial board endorsed based, in part, on that promise.
That’s your other piece of good news this last week.
New Sheriff Williams met with us to say he’s making good on his promise.
He and Undersheriff Pat Ivey freely acknowledged systemic problems with openness and public responsiveness in the Sheriff’s Office and said they already had begun developing improvements.
“We clearly have a broken process,” Williams said, “and we are getting on it and fixing it.”
We agreed to meet again in about three months to discuss progress.
As if to accent our open, democratic government, I was interviewed by a Russian TV correspondent about a column I wrote on gun control and the Second Amendment. Because she said her audience is international, I explained that the right to keep and bear firearms is guaranteed in our Constitution — which in the United States, in contrast to many other countries, actually means what it says.
I was able to say that we Americans take our Constitution and the rule of law literally and seriously, though it does require our vigilance and, occasionally, some nudging. (904) 359-4197

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