We made the news again. This time for something that is not very exciting but extremely important. Routine public records requests rarely make the news, but when the city has a history of violating public records laws, they become newsworthy. I made a public records request, and because the city has a history of unnecessary delays in responses and failure to provide documents for political reasons, their delay was reported. My routine request came because as a city resident, I was curious about certain public expenses, and asked for documents about them.
The city has paid over two million dollars to 40 different law firms in less than two years. Having heard about the high legal fees, I was curious how much one law firm, Kerrigan, Estess, Rankin, McLeod & Thompson, was paid because their senior partner, Bob Kerrigan, a well respected Pensacola personal injury lawyer, was representing the city in a lawsuit. I sent a public records request to the city asking for documentation of the legal arrangement between Mr. Kerrigan and the city, but, while the city had their answer the next day, they sat on the response for an unreasonable time before telling me that no such documentation existed. While Mr. Kerrigan promptly responded to the city, it held that information and closed the request without ever notifying me. I tried to contact the city numerous times during that six weeks, but did not get a response that it had been fulfilled until I got a phone call informing me the request was closed. I never got an email either notifying me the document had been uploaded or that the request was closed. This failure to timely provide public records is a systemic problem in the city.
In 2013, the City of Pensacola was the subject of a State Attorney’s Office investigation into their failure to comply with Florida’s broad public records law. The State Attorney’s Office cited two officials in the Mayor’s administration for failing to respond to public records requests and for not trying to locate them.
In response to the investigation, the city revamped its public records process. The new process has an online request portal that emails progress updates. When city staff has questions or a request needs clarification, the system emails the requestor the concerns. When the public records request is complete, an email is sent, and the documents are available online for download. The system works if the people running it are responsive. However, my request was delayed for over six weeks despite the city having the document the next day.