ANNA MARIA — A Sarasota-based legal consultant has submitted a public records request to the city asking to inspect e-mail records of City Commissioner Harry Stoltzfus and Planning and Zoning Board member Jim Conoly.
The request was made by Michael Barfield, a legal consultant with offices in Sarasota, and is dated March 10, 2010. The request, made under that portion of the Sunshine Laws pertaining to public records (section 119.07, Fla. Stat.), asks for the following: “All e-mails, including attachments, regardless of whether on a personal or private e-mail account, sent or received by Jim Conoly and Harry Stoltzfus beginning on March 1, 2009 through March 10, 2009.”
Barfield’s request, stating more of the statute (section 119.07(1)(c), says that if the city (or Conoly or Stoltzfus) contends that a particular record is exempt, they must state in writing why they feel that the requested record is not a public record.
Under the law, “even if an assertion is made by the custodian of public records that a requested record is not a public record subject to public inspection or copying under this subsection, the requested record, shall nevertheless, not be disposed of for a period of 30 days after the date on which a written request to inspect or copy the record was served on or otherwise made to the custodian of public records by the person.”
Barfield’s request includes only e-mails that pertain to the official business of the city.
Barfield said in a phone interview that it is his policy not to comment on public records requests.
“It’s the right of every citizen to request and inspect the public record,” he said. “The person’s motivation is irrelevant and the governmental body should not ask for a reason.”
The Venice case
Barfield was one of the principals in a well-known public records case in Venice.
In that case, the private and official e-mail accounts of several city commissioners also were requested.
The Venice case illustrated the difficulties of gaining access to the public record. The commissioners denied they had public records on their personal computers.
Ultimately, the hard drives of the commissioners were seized and the deleted e-mails pertaining to city business were recovered forensically.
The city of Venice ended up paying about $1.5 million in legal fees to the opposition, changed the way it preserves the public record and holds regular Sunshine training sessions for public officials and employees.
The Jacksonville law firm of Rumrell, Costabel, Warrington and Brock, LLP handled the Venice case.
Pine Avenue Restoration, Inc, (PAR) a company developing properties in Anna Maria, retained the Jacksonville firm late last year to write a letter to City Attorney Jim Dye.
That letter complained that Stoltzfus, in an undated letter to city officials about parking codes, was singling out the PAR properties in a “not so subtle attack on the already approved site plan at 315/317 Pine Avenue and future development.”
Barfield refers to the Venic case in his letter, “As in the city of Venice, whenever a city uses its governmental power to target a specific property owner, it subjects the city to damages for violation of the equal protection laws and the Fourteenth Amendment rights of property owners."
Barfield would not confirm he was involved in the Venice case, however, a court Web site indicates he was part of the successful legal challenge against the city of Venice over the Sunshine violations. A legal document states he was owed a total of $100,080, which included 834 hours billed at an hourly rate of $120.
It was specifically due to the Venice case that the city of Anna Maria hired a technical firm to handle e-mail. Each commissioner and the chair of each committee was assigned an e-mail address on the city’s account.
Then shortly after last fall’s election, the city held training for city staff, elected officials and appointed members of boards and committees on the Sunshine Laws.
Both Stoltzfus and Conoly attended the training session during which Dye outlined the Venice case. He advised those in attendance that it would be prudent to avoid using their private e-mail accounts when conducting city business.
Micheal Coleman, managing partner for PAR, declined comment at this time as to whether or not PAR is involved in any way in the public records request.
Conoly said he’s in the process of complying with the request.
“It’s a pain to gather all that material,” he said. “But that’s the law and I have to comply.”
Conoly said it is fortunate he captured anything having to do with city business in a folder on his personal e-mail.
Stoltzfus said he didn’t want to comment.
The city is working to gather the e-mails that Barfield requested, according to City Clerk Alice Baird.
“I’ve been in touch with Integrated Tech Support,” she said. “They maintain our electronic record.”
Baird said she’s asked ITS to work up an estimate of what retrieving the e-mails stored in the city’s archive will cost. When she has that figure, she’ll ask for some or all of the money up front from Barfield.
Under the Sunshine Laws, governmental bodies are allowed to recover reasonable costs for fulfilling public records requests.
At press time, Baird was still expecting to hear back from ITS.