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Public records solar eclipse

November 20, 2019
Lehigh Acres Citizen

If you're looking to check the employment history or educational background of your child's teacher and think a public records request might shed some light, you might want to strap on some night-vision goggles while you wait -- and wait -- for the documents: What passes for Government in the Sunshine here in Lee County sometimes casts some mighty dark shadows.

The Lee County School District -- whose elected board touts "transparency" -- ballyhoos a public records production process that actual users might call opaque, at best.

Why do we say this?

An actual crawl through the system.

It took the District nearly two months to fill a request for an employee application -- what one would expect to be as simple and routine a request as can be.

Two pages. Two months. And a staff "labor charge" of $21.56 for the District's assistant director of recruitment's half hour of billable time at the rate of $43.12 per hour to "compile, review, redact and provide the records requested."

It took the District nearly a month -- from Aug. 16 to Sept. 13 -- to compute the cost, payable in advance by cash or check, then another 25 days -- from Oct. 1, when payment was received, to Oct. 25 -- to actually produce the record, singular. The document consisted of a two-page online application form without the resume attachment to which it refers because the District, ahem, does not employ "mind readers" and the request did not specifically stipulate a resume, only the application.

Well, then.

For the sake of argument, we'll take responsibility for lack of specificity. Lesson learned.

For the sake of fairness, we'll also take responsibility for most of the two-week payment processing window.

We reject, however, the District's defense of the process, our primary concern in this public records dance and dally. If this truly is an accurate reflection of how the process works, that process meets neither the spirit of Sunshine Law parameters nor the intent of District policy, both of which require that public records be produced in a "reasonable" amount of time.

This is what we find so concerning.

An anomaly? Might not make anyone on the receiving end of a records request happy, but it happens. Goodness knows.

The concern here -- and let us not make the same mistake twice and so be specific -- is that the District maintains that not only is it compliant but insists this an acceptable way to conduct a core administrative function that officials say involves hundreds of requests per year.

Bluntly put, a glitch we can accept; District staff's definition of "reasonable" we cannot.

Nor should the School Board of Lee County.

A couple of things in the wake of what we still would like to think is a rare example of a public records solar eclipse - i.e. you can see the Sunshine, but only if you squint really, really hard.

One, while performance audits in the past have ostensibly resulted in commendations, it may be time for another one -- particularly if we are to accept District explanation that requests are "dropped in the queue" and processed in turn. That begs the question: A near month backlog to vet a request for potential costs? A three-week backlog to then fill it? Can't be right. If it is, that needs to be fixed and fixed in a real world reasonable amount of time.

Two, we strongly urge the Board to ask for an analysis of the District's fee assessment process for records staff finds will require "extensive" retrieval time. More than $20 for a single record whose statutory copy cost is 30 cents is perplexing. It's troubling as well. Excessive fees are too often applied as sunscreen in the public records world. The Board must assure that is not the case here.

Time. And money. Your right to know should not take too much of either. That's our definition of reasonable.

It should be the District's as well.

- Citizen editorial

 
 

 

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