County Wants $21,600 for Emails About Stalled Campaign-Finance Petitions

Time to play a guessing game: How much would it cost Miami-Dade County officials to search for a week's worth of emails from commissioners and then print those messages and hand them to someone?

Would $21,600 sound reasonable?

In what might be the most expensive printing operation ever undertaken, Miami-Dade County records officers say it will apparently cost tens of thousands of dollars to hand over emails related to the county's ongoing fight over a stalled campaign-finance reform initiative.

The price begs one obvious question: Is the county putting up roadblocks to prevent the public from reading its emails?

"I am completely outraged," Juan Cuba, the activist who filed the request, tells New Times, "and surprised. It was a very limited request — limited to specific actors and limited to a specific topic. I thought it was completely reasonable."

Via phone, Michael Hernandez, a spokesperson for the mayor, tells New Times that the mayor's office is aware of the quoted price and that the county will now waive any public-records fees stemming from anyone under the purview of the mayor's office.

"We just need Juan to call the County Attorney's Office and narrow the search," Hernandez says. "It was a fairly large request."

The petitions have roiled Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez's reelection campaign. According to county laws, if enough residents submit signed petitions to the government, the county must begin counting those petitions within 30 days and then either turn the petitions into law or put the measure up for a countywide vote.

But after the activist group Accountable Miami-Dade submitted 127,000 petitions — far higher than the minimum required — to cut Miami-Dade's maximum campaign donation limit to just $250, the county claims it cannot start counting them and has suggested it could delay a vote on the measure all the way until 2018.

Miami-Dade's inaction has led to a national outcry under the #StartCounting hashtag and a protest at County Hall today:

Activists including Accountable Miami-Dade say county laws are clear that the government must honor the petitions within 30 days. The group says Gimenez, as mayor, can order the count, given the powers he has when the commission goes into its summer recess.

The county, however, denies that the mayor can do anything, and the petitions now sit unused in the county Board of Elections headquarters in Doral. So Accountable Miami-Dade announced yesterday it will sue the county to get the petitions counted.

As part of this process, Juan Cuba, who is an Accountable Miami-Dade advisory board member, filed a public-records request for emails the government had sent regarding the petitions.

On August 9, the county held a "special meeting" to try to get the petitions authorized, but after Commissioner Barbara Jordan dropped out at the last minute, the commission no longer had enough members available to hold a vote, and the measure stalled.

"I wanted to know why the commission couldn't reach a quorum," Cuba tells New Times. "I wanted to know if there was anything the commission received or the mayor received, and I wanted to know what their concerns were."

According to emails Cuba provided to New Times, he requested the following:
Pursuant to the Public Records Act, Chapter 119 of the Florida Statutes, I am writing to request the following documents, written communications and phone logs of any communication between any of the following individuals; the Miami-Dade Supervisor of Elections Ms. Christina White, Clerks Director Christopher Agrippa, Members of the Board of County Commission, the County Attorney's Office and Mayor Carlos Gimenez, or any of their designees between August 1 - August 9 regarding a petition for campaign finance reform. This request includes copies of every document related to the matter, regardless of the format in which the information is stored.

Specifically, please provide the following:
  • Any and all email correspondence between any of of the individuals or their designees noted above between the dates of August 1 - August 9, 2016.
  • Any and all telephone logs between the dates of August 1 - August 9, 2016.
  • Any and all written communications, including emails, letters, text messages and other recoverable means, relating to the petition on campaign finance reform between individuals noted above between the dates of August 1 - August 9, 2016.
But yesterday, a county records officer wrote back and claimed the act of searching a few names in an email database, printing a handful of emails, and rounding up some call logs would somehow cost the county $21,600 — if not more.
Your public records request will require 150 searches which will take 300 hours to complete at the rate of ITD personnel, $72 per hour, for a total cost of $21,600.

However, please note that all documents resulting from the search will have to be sorted and grouped by ITD, so that they can be provided to the applicable County Departments for review for the presence of exempt and/or confidential information.

Because this will likely be a lengthy process (depending on the number of results) that requires the extensive use of County personnel time, the County will have to charge for the time involved in the sorting and review of the responsive documents.

Thus, depending on the number of results, there may also be a substantial additional cost associated with that review, at a cost that cannot be estimated until the search commences and we can determine the number of responsive documents. Once we begin the search, we can provide an updated estimate of the time and costs required for the review.

In light of the potential time and expense involved, please let us know if you would prefer to narrow your request. If you would like to proceed with the request, pre-payment will be required before the search and review can begin. Please let us know how you would like to proceed.
Hernandez, meanwhile, said Gimenez's office was aware of the quoted price and was working to reduce the cost.

"I spoke with the County Attorney's Office," he said via email. "Their office is working to narrow the scope and significantly reduce any costs associated with the search."

Cuba, meanwhile, says, "People should know what happened that day and should know why the county is dragging its feet on a petition drive that over 127,000 people signed."

Instead, he says, it appears the county is just playing additional games to kill the initiative.

This isn't even the first records-request controversy of the year: When the Miami Herald asked for public records from the City of Miami Beach about water quality, that city said the documents would somehow cost a flabbergasting $72,793.53.

But in July, the city then admitted it simply straight-up charged the Herald twice what public-records laws allow.
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.

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