Monday, March 29, 2010

Sunshine Week: Public Records Audit

According to the Florida Sunshine Law, the general public is permitted to view governmental documents if they request it. In many past cases, some members of the public were not allowed access to some of these documents.

As part of Sunshine Week, we as normal people--not reporters--were sent out on a mission to various locales in Pensacola to see if we were granted access to specific documents that should be available to the public. We were unable to give out identification unless absolutely necessary.

I was told to travel to Pensacola’s City Hall and gain access to e-mails between the city manager and city commission for the past week. Before rushing off to Pensacola’s City Hall, I decided to do some research. I visited Pensacola’s official Web site to see if the e-mails I was looking for were available on the website. I found a search engine on the site that enables the person to search for council files, minutes, ordinances and resolutions.

I did not find what I was looking for so I looked up the directions for City Hall and made plans to head over there. The website said I would possibly be directed to the city clerk on the seventh floor, so I was hoping I was right in my prediction.

Being the procrastinator that I am, I managed to find a ride on Monday morning—four hours before the due date. As I was sitting in the car I was wondering how long this experiment would take and what would happen if I managed to screw up. One of my biggest worries of the morning (apart from not having eaten breakfast) was being interrogated because of what I was asking for.

In all honesty, I would be a bit creeped out if somebody walked up to me and asked for other people’s e-mails. But that’s not the point.

I arrived at City Hall at 9:22 a.m. and asked the bored, sleepy woman at the front desk where I needed to go to get access to general documents. Without asking me what for, she told me I could find what I needed on the seventh floor (I knew it).

I took the elevator up to the seventh floor and took a left, where a woman was sitting behind a desk (I praise myself for not getting lost for the first time ever).

The woman asked me if there was anything I needed and I said that I would like to view the e-mails sent between the city manager and city commission. Surprisingly, she did not look at me weirdly or ask me why I needed this information. She skipped that part and asked me what time frame I was looking for in the e-mails and I said this past week if possible.

I asked her if it was possible to have the e-mails printed out now, but she said she had to look up the e-mails first—something that takes a while I guess.

She asked me for my name and I asked her if it was necessary. She said she needed contact information from me so she could send me what I needed. I gave her my first name only, as well as an e-mail to reach me at. She jotted this down on a post-it note and stuck it near her computer.

The woman told me she would notify me as soon as possible and would send it to me. She included that if the e-mails were too big, I would have to come back and retrieve them in person.

I thanked her for her time and went back down to the lobby. The bored, sleepy woman was staring into space so I made her snap out of it by yelling good-bye to her from the opposite end of the building. Whoops.

Upon leaving the building, I realized that this wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. The two people I talked to at City Hall were very nice and friendly, and didn’t think to question me at all. They didn’t ask me why I was here, why I needed this information, etc.

It also didn’t take up too much of my time either. I got home before 10:00 a.m. 

So does Pensacola’s City Hall comply with the Florida Sunshine Law? Yes, it seems like it.


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