Eye on Jacksonville has taken note several times of the way the Jacksonville news outlets have allowed local government officials to shut down access to public information, without strong protest.
But the situation is worse than we knew.
The information gatekeepers for the government do not have to tell the media anything. Eye, for example, was designated media non grata by the office of Mayor Lenny Curry and the order was sent down to ignore our requests for information or comment.
But, the law requires public officials to provide public records.
In that regard, the Curry administration has complied. Requests for public records go through the Office of General Counsel and generally are provided promptly. Lawyers know the law.
But other parts of the government have found ways to thwart access by delay and by imposing huge charges for providing the information.
This was unheard of 50 years ago.
We were shocked when Eye asked the School Board for information a couple of years ago. It was information that should have been readily available.
It took months to provide the information and we were charged more than $100. Except for that, however, we have had more cooperation from the school system than any other segment of local government.
Also, the amount we were charged is peanuts compared to the lucrative system at the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office.
They force almost every question through the “public records” funnel, and they charge the local media thousands of dollars to answer routine questions.
One local news website was charged nearly $5,000 for information. Before the information was provided, they were advised that fulfilling the request would cost nearly $25,000 – and most of it would be redacted, meaning they would get virtually nothing for the $25,000.
Reportedly, some outlets pool together to order one piece of information and split the cost.
This is outrageous.
Years ago, I could call George Dandelake at the sheriff’s office for budget questions, Ed Squyars for personnel information, George Bennett about traffic or Gary Higgins for statistics – and I got solid answers within minutes. I went to crime scenes and was not barred or chased away.
Essentially, the public in Jacksonville today is getting news by press release.
Reporters rarely get first-hand information anymore. One reporter for a TV station told Eye he makes daily visits to City Hall and is allowed to see and talk to bureaucrats and politicians with relative ease, but that must be a rare case. Even so he said he has complained about restraints.
Officials who may be trying to hide something also have other ways to dodge an issue.
In 2018, we asked a fairly innocuous question about the number of calls dispatched and average response time to calls. The sheriff’s office simply didn’t answer.
Three months ago, we asked the police for the percentage of traffic stops that resulted in arrests for non-traffic offenses for the calendar year or fiscal year of 2020.
We wanted that information because the anti-police crowd has complained about police making traffic stops, made a racial issue out of it and alleged that the stops are just harassment.
Eye supports the police and the information we requested would have been useful for addressing that question.
The response was that “no such records exist.”
That’s ridiculous: Of course they exist. Police have an extensive supply of data, and if their computer does not automatically calculate such information from records on traffic stops, it would be easy to tell the computer to do so.
This is a problem that has arisen since paper records were replaced with digital records.
The sheriff’s office could have supplied the information and charged us an outrageous price, or they could just say they didn’t have the information, which was the course they took.
One might speculate that the data was examined, found to be unfavorable to whatever image Sheriff Mike Williams wants to portray, and was withheld.
Selling information that should be provided at no cost has become a nice source of revenue. Last year, $303,619.49 was collected in the police reports account, which includes all public records requests, copies of police reports and copies of accident reports. (That information we got from the police within a matter of days at no cost.)
Polls show public trust in the media is waning. This is partly brought on by large segment of the media jettisoning objective reporting and becoming an arm of the Democrat Party.
But another cause probably is that even the media who want to supply the full story can’t because they can’t get the information from government.
Some don’t even try.
Early in my newspaper career, we had a reporter in the newsroom who was so lazy he would take a news release from the Navy, scratch out the heading and write in his byline. The city editor put a quick stop to that, and the reporter later was fired.
Press releases are government’s version of what happened. Reporters are supposed to find out what actually happened and tell the public, without inserting their opinion.
The media should be protesting and demanding change. If they don’t, the public should.