A Lesson in Obstruction

Miami-Dade's public schools have a nasty habit of charging reporters to view public records -- which probably is illegal

Is that legal? Chapter 119 states that public information must be open for inspection without charge unless otherwise expressly provided by law. An agency can charge extra only "when the nature or volume of public records to be inspected is such as to require extensive use of information technology resources, or extensive clerical or supervisory assistance, or both."

What does "extensive" mean? The school board's rule says "it means that it will take more than fifteen minutes to locate, review for confidential information, copy, and refile the requested material." But Bohrer is unconvinced that cops' job histories, some of which contain as many as 300 pages each, qualify as an "extensive" use of school board employees' time.

Miami-Dade County police do not routinely charge for viewing personnel records. A spokesman even questioned the school department's bill. "If they have to pull someone away from other duties to process a request, I might understand a slight charge," allows the spokesman, who declined to give his name. When told of the high cost, he replied: "I find it hard to fathom that amount. That sounds kind of funny to me."

Henry Fraind is no longer the school district's spokesman, but the siege mentality lives on
Steve Satterwhite
Henry Fraind is no longer the school district's spokesman, but the siege mentality lives on

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The charges are particularly questionable because the cost schedules are applied arbitrarily. Reporters from New Times, the Herald, and elsewhere routinely review personnel files of school employees without paying. Patricia Bass acknowledges the district dropped one level of scrutiny from the process as a result of Bohrer's protests but maintains that the district, by law, has the right to charge for lengthy records searches. "Our intent is to follow the statute and the board rule, and to try to be consistent," she says.

On March 31 Henry Fraind wrote a letter to New Times stating the files would be available for review, "for a revised cost of $652.50." He then mailed it -- to Channel 10. There reporter Jilda Unruh and producer Helen Moore-Harbeson had, on March 16, made their own request for the personnel files of six school police officers (four of whom also were on the New Times list). Fraind made another mistake by mailing his Channel 10 (WPLG-TV) response to New Times; he quoted the TV station a price of $937.05.

Unruh was alarmed that another news organization was chasing the same story and angry that Channel 10 was being charged more than New Times.Indeed she was dumbfounded that she would have to pay anything. "I thought it was obscene," the broadcasting veteran declares. "I have never, anywhere I've worked, had public records cost me that kind of money. This is clearly done to discourage anyone, whether it be the press or a parent or a concerned citizen, from getting the information they want. And if [this practice] doesn't violate the letter of the law, it certainly violates the spirit."

Channel 10, like New Times, has decided not to pay. Unlike New Times Channel 10 did not involve its attorneys.

Is New Times prepared to give Bohrer the green light for litigation? Not yet. "After years of unproductive confrontation and legal threats, I think it's time for us and other news organizations to sit down with school district officials and work out a mutually acceptable procedure for producing public records," editor Jim Mullin says. "Surely Roger Cuevas wouldn't object to that, would he?"

At the very least, it wouldn't be a problem for new school police Chief Pete Cuccaro, himself a former public-information officer for the Metro-Dade Police Department. He says the whole mess could have been avoided if the school district in general, and the police in particular, had established clear lines of communication with the press. "[The school district] has been closed in the past, but they say they want to be open now," Cuccaro says. "I absolutely believe them, and that's what I'm about."

ted.kissell@miaminewtimes.com

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