In the information age, accessing public records should be cheap, easy – even free.
The County Commission’s recent discussion about public records access has generated lots of press. Commissioners were deciding whether or not they would retroactively bill CONA president Lourdes Ramirez a fee for the cost of staff supervision for recent her inspection of public records. Ramirez took two days to review over 19 boxes of records related to the County’s 2050 comprehensive plan. Ramirez was not advised of a supervision charge for reviewing the records; she brought a scanner so she could make her own copies.
During the Commission discussion, the County conference room was referenced as “our office space”. Commissioner Barbetta suggested numerous simultaneous supervisors were needed (only one person at a time was supervising Ramirez). The same Commissioner asked if Ms. Ramirez (“that person”) had any outstanding public records bills, was told that Ramirez was all paid up, then went on to suggest Ramirez got a “free ride” and later said the County “hadn’t been paid”. Huh? Some on the Commission seem intent on erroneously claiming state law requires citizens to be billed for viewing records. State law allows such fees, but doesn’t require them. Commissioner Mason lamented the County had been “taken advantage of”. Really?
Taxpayers foot the bill for the office space, staff, the creation and storage of public records. All of those resources belong to the public. The Commission stewards those resources on behalf of the public interest. The public has an interest in access to their records, and in the information age, access should be cheap and easy – even free.
How to make it so?
- ALL Commission e-mails should be accessible on the County’s website. Currently the County’s website only allows the public to see and search e-mails that Commissioners choose to answer. If Commissioners don’t want an e-mailed issue or complaint to appear on County website, they can simply ignore those e-mails. This convenient information resource for the public is currently censored due to the Commission’s cherry-picked responses.
- The County should provide a couple of computer kiosks for public use at their Venice and Sarasota locations. Citizens could then search the County server for public records – e-mails and documents – and bring their own flashdrive or disk(s) to make copies. North Port and the City of Sarasota provide such access for all City Commission e-mails.
- Paper records ought to be well-organized so records retrieval is quick and fees are minimal. If records retrieval is problematic (as the recent Commission discussion suggests), citizens shouldn’t experience a financial hit because the County’s records storage isn’t efficient. The County also should be creating a digital archive so all public records are available in electronic format.
- Records inspections should be conducted in a large open area, with numerous staff observing while working nearby. As the County Administrator shared this is a proven method in other municipalities which eliminates fees for supervision. Safeguarding of public records is enhanced because many more people are able to keep an eye on the public inspections. An effective, proven approach, with no fee for the public.
When the County Commission fails to provide optimal public records access, and refers to public resources as their own, they beg the question: Whose records are they, anyway?