Provide Citizens Easy Access to Public Records

 

The County’s decision to dwell in the digital access Stone Age is decidedly third class.

 

Guest editorial, Sarasota Herald Tribune, September 22, 2013

 

In the information age, technology offers many options for creating, storing and accessing public records. A national open-government advocate from the Sunlight Foundation recently noted, “Providing public access to local government information no longer has to mean that residents come to city hall and request permission to sift through paper documents.”

 

True enough — unless you want to peruse Sarasota County’s 2050 Comprehensive Plan land-use documents.

As Lourdes Ramirez learned, the Sarasota County Commission doesn’t want to make it easy or cheap for citizens to research the county’s land-use policies. Ramirez’s request for public records related to Sarasota 2050 yielded boxes of paper records. (Aren’t these documents digitally archived?) Ramirez took a few days to sift through dozens of boxes.

When told of Ramirez’s review, county commissioners expressed annoyance that a citizen used “our conference room.” They chattered for 45 minutes over whether or not to retroactively bill Ramirez a $220 staff supervision fee for her records inspection. (Would the staff supervisor have been paid twice?) They voted 3-2 against the charge, but only because Ramirez wasn’t told ahead of time; they made it clear they will impose the discretionary supervision fee in the future.

County Administrator Randall Reid advised commissioners that other municipalities have citizens inspect public records in a large, open area where many staff members are able to work and observe, and they don’t charge supervision fees.

Reid might as well have been talking to a wall. Not a single commissioner advocated for this no-cost, common-sense approach. Their message to us all: If you want to look at the records your taxes pay to create and store, be prepared to pay up.

The commissioners also refuse to provide full access to their emails on the county website, ignoring open access requests from numerous community leaders. The commissioners only allow emails they choose to answer to appear on the website. If they don’t want an emailed issue or complaint to appear on the county website, not responding keeps it out of view.

While the County Commission thwarts public records access, our cities do a much better job.

Venice City Council members provide access to all their emails online. The city of Sarasota provides full web access, too, and an on-site public computer for citizen records searches; citizens can email city records or copy them to a disk or flash drive — no need to pay for copies. In North Port, they’ll pull up requested public records on a computer screen, let you sit at a work station and copy what you’d like to your flash drive or disk.

Why doesn’t the county provide public computers with access to county records, so citizens can conduct their own searches and save the data to their own disk or flash drive? Why adopt policies that require a gatekeeper to process most requests, rather than empower citizens to search records for free whenever possible?

Taxpayers foot the bill for county office space, staff and the creation and storage of public records. The public has an interest in access to the records we own and, in the information age, access should be cheap and easy — even free.

In a county that relishes its world-class attributes, the Sarasota County Commission’s policy to dwell in the digital access Stone Age (and impose unnecessary fees) is decidedly third class.

2 Comments on Provide Citizens Easy Access to Public Records

  1. I agree. I remember sitting in a a BCC meeting last year when they were talking about email and this issue. Some of their comments astonished me. I don’t remember which one it was, but the comment was made that the shear volume alone would overwhelm the average citizen. To which another one added: never mind the complexity of the issues! At that time they kept asking staff to tell them that it would be expensive or otherwise impossible. Staff kept replying that they could practically have it done in a matter of minutes once the BCC gave their approval. Kind of makes you think doesn’t it?

    • Great memory John. I remember the same. Open online access to BCC e-mail would be easy and the cost – nada. There are some frequent e-mailers who dress them down on a regular basis. That was another reason they gave for censoring access. They didn’t want the public to see the negative e-mails. Ridiculous.

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