Still Hurdles in Accessing Public Information

March 17, 2008 6 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

While seeking information on the state of the Jacksonville Animal Care and Control Center (JACC) and the city's failure thus far to build a new facility as mandated in the 2001 Better Jacksonville Plan, we naturally wanted to speak to someone in charge of that department for comment. In short, we were not allowed to.

The Mayor's office effectively prevented us from gathering any kind of comment from department heads. This is nothing new for us. We have ran into similar "obstructionist" policies from Mr. Peyton's office before. In the spirit of "Sunshine Week", we have chosen to highlight this example and another from our past. We have also included thoughts and experiences from a former city department head and Folio Weekly writer Susan Cooper Eastman.

While some argue it might be an unrealistic goal to hope for change or a more "open" flow of information from city government, from this story, at the very least, the reader may gain perspective on how difficult it is for any news organization in Jacksonville to bring its readers/viewers a hard-hitting story that requires interacting with the press "managers" at City Hall.


Our quest to speak with the "head dog catcher"

Our quest to speak with anyone in charge at JACC began with a visit to the facilities on West 1st Street. There we were told that we would have to speak to a "Kristin". We then called Kristin and were told that Ebenezer S. Gujjarlapudi, P.E. (head of Environmental & Compliance) or Fred Forbes, CPA (Interim Division Chief of JACC) would call us that day. Neither called.

The next day we called Kristin back again, only to find out that she was out of the office that day. Fortunately, Kristin's voice mail directed us to call "Stacy" with any outstanding matters. We then called Stacy and as we began to explain our situation Stacy indicated immediately that she knew who we were and why were calling and that she had been instructed to have us call Misty Skipper in the Mayor's Office.

Uh oh. A phone call to Ms. Skipper's office quickly affirmed the worst as she stated "If I just knew what you wanted to ask Fred (Forbes, CPA),  we could help get you some answers."

From there, the story continues via phone calls and emails to and from Ms. Skipper and Mr. Forbes, CPA (none ever FROM Mr. Forbes, CPA). Perhaps the gist of the story though is best summed up by saying that Mr. Forbes, CPA never did call us back (despite his assistant indicating he was around the office and not in meetings for the day) and we finally received an email from Ms. Skipper at the story deadline stating, "I got a message from Fred. He is sorry, he has been in meetings all day." Did it really matter at this point? Even if we had been allowed to speak to Mr. Forbes, CPA, judging from the internal policies documented next, perhaps we would've received only sanitized information at best.


David Flagler: "Mayor's office would not allow me to speak freely"

Though we were not able to speak to the current JACC interim chief, we did manage to get in touch with the former department head, Mr. David Flagler.

 Mr. Flagler, who has now taken a position as the Chief of Alachua County Animal Care, was forced to resign in July 2007 by the Mayor's office due to "management disagreements." While Mr. Flagler had many positive things to say about the majority of his time as Division Chief, as it relates to this story, Mr. Flagler had the following comments: "The Mayor's office would not allow me speak freely to the media. Before speaking to the media, I had to be briefed by his (Peyton's) press people on what I was allowed to say. It just seemed like they were always so afraid something would get out that would reflect negatively on the administration." Mr. Flagler, who had worked in many other cities as Director of Animal Care prior to coming to Jacksonville, indicated that this was the only city he had worked in where such policies were in place and added that he felt this greatly hampered his efforts to "use the media in a positive manner to get the message of responsible pet ownership out to the community as I had done in other cities".

More internal censorship

Some may remember when the Peyton administration attempted to cut off public internet access to city officials' emails (how to view city email). brought you this story in 2006 - as it explicitly targeted us as the newest and most vocal readers of the emails. Other local media outlets quickly picked up and began reporting on this story shortly thereafter. At that time, Peyton Press Secretary Susie Wiles was informing the media that the main reason for limiting public access to city email was due to an increase in viruses and spam.

As a followup to Ms. Wile's statements, MetroJacksonville decided to contact Dave Lauer, who was the head of Information Technology for the City of Jacksonville at the time. Mr. Lauer told us point blank that Ms. Wiles' story was not correct - there had been no increase in viruses or spam at all. We then confronted Ms. Wiles about Mr. Lauer's comments and she insisted that Mr. Lauer was wrong and maintained her position. Shortly thereafter Ms. Wiles sent an email to Mr. Lauer informing him that she would be handling all further contact with the press on the matter. Subsequent voice messages that we left at Mr. Lauer's desk were unreturned after that point.


Obstructionist policies when gathering information

Susan Coooper Eastman has an outstanding record of questioning those in charge within City Hall and uncovering things that were not supposed to be easily found. In her words, here are some of the challenges she faces in getting unfiltered information: "I'll call someone, doesn't matter who, and I'll end up in the mayor's office. That's fine, because if one of the mayor's public information officers or whatever they're called, work on something they'll get answers for me. But I'd like to get the info direct from the person who knows about it, without all the oversight and the p.r. machinations. And it makes you wonder what the experience is of the general public who probably don't get a personal keeper assigned to them when they ask for info and records."

Ms. Eastman elaborates on her frustration with obstructionist policies from the Mayor's office: "It's like they've all attended some retreat where they discuss nifty new ways to vex a public records request. 'Pretend the wording of the request is confusing!', 'Only produce exactly what they ask for!', 'Give them so many boxes of material they'll never get through it!' and 'Charge, charge, charge!'"

Ms. Eastman is not alone in her frustrations here. MetroJacksonville has experienced some of the same obstructionist tactics when pursuing public record requests. It should be noted that Ms. Eastman has had an equally tough task obtaining public information from the Jacksonville Airport Authority who she recently exposed in their consulting arrangement with now City Council Member Denise Lee.

There has been a fair amount of press surrounding the recent grand jury that was convened to investigate (and that subsequently "acquitted") City Council members for discussing public business without notifying the public.  This is fortunate as it has brought forth the issue of conducting public business in the "sunshine" like never before. Nevertheless, there remain dark corners to the public's access of local government information. Hopefully this report has shed a little light on those still-shadowy areas.

See also: 
"A Tale of Two Requests" (documents how public information requests are handled differently depending upon who is requesting the information)
"Happy Sunshine Day!" (from Sunshine Day 2006)