Gainesville City Commission Considers Public Records Portal Transparency


During the evening Commission Comment period of the Gainesville City Commission meeting on March 21, Mayor Harvey Ward raised two issues: making the City’s Equity and Inclusion Office available to UF students who are feeling “adrift” after the University eliminated its DEI office, and reconsidering a previous Commission vote to make the City’s public records portal more transparent.

The first item emerged from Ward’s recent interaction with some young men from the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity at the University of Florida. The learners, according to Ward, “were looking for ways that they and other students might get more involved in local government and voter outreach and that sort of thing.” Ward said he informed them that the City does not “do voter registration as an organization.”

Then he continued, “Before I say all this, let me say that in no way am I trying in this discussion to poke anyone in the Governor’s office or any such thing; I’m trying to make sure that people in our community feel heard as I move through this.”

The young men expressed dissatisfaction with the University of Florida’s lack of support for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) throughout their debate.

Ward stated that the University’s DEI office has completed “a couple different things,” including “dotting i’s and crossing t’s on grants and things like that.” That is not something we can genuinely participate in. They also provided a secure space for conversation and general support, which was especially important for first-generation, diverse kids. And that does not exist right now. And it is a fact: these are young people who live in our city, attend the University of Florida, and feel lost as a result.”

Ward stated to the children that as Gainesville residents, “We owe you, as a City organization, our support.” The City of Gainesville prioritized equity and inclusion decades ago, to the point where we established a Charter office and included it in our City Charter, our founding document. It won’t go away with a single stroke of the pen. That continues to exist for Gainesville residents, including students.” He stated that he had previously offered the City as a “backstop to some level for those services” if DEI was discontinued at the University.

Ward spoke with Zeriah Folston, the City’s Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. He plans to reach out to the University of Florida’s diverse student unions and Student Government, offering a listening session with the Office of Equity and Inclusion. I’m not sure what they need, and neither do we. But these young people may come and tell us what they need. And it’s possible that we won’t be able to meet their needs, but they live in our city, and we owe it to them to hear it.” He stated that once the meeting is scheduled, it would be publicly announced so that various commissioners can attend.

Ward then stated that, while voting on February 22 to endorse Commissioner Ed Book’s plan to promote transparency by making all completed public records requests viewable by the public, he did not fully comprehend what he was voting on. I voted yes. I’m not sure I fully comprehended the implications.”

JustFOIA, the City’s public records request platform, features a “switch” that the administrator can set. Under the current configuration (which was not altered following the prior vote), only the person who requested the public record has access to that information. If the “switch” is flicked, the documents become part of a searchable database accessible to the general public.

Ward stated that after the vote, “several Charter officers” informed him that the Equity Office and HR would conduct investigations involving both City staff and neighborhood citizens. I’m not comfortable with it. Even if someone is exonerated, the information will become public. If someone has a question or concerns, they can go obtain it and ask for it. But I don’t feel comfortable doing a large data dump on people in our community who have been exonerated. If someone proposed a move to reconsider, I would change my vote on it. If not, that’s fine, too.”

Commissioner Bryan Eastman said he voted negative on February 22 because he didn’t have a solid comprehension of it. After meeting with several of the Charter officers, I realized there were some possible drawbacks.

Eastman moved to “maintain the current public records request structure” (i.e., keep records available only to the requestor). Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut seconded the motion.

The book stated that the way Ward had “couched it is not quite accurate” and also noted that Ward had brought this up at the end of the evening session of the meeting when two Commissioners were absent.

The book explained that “flipping the switch” to make completed requests available to anybody meant that if a records request was satisfied, “anybody else could simply access that same information…in the [JustFOIA] portal.” He noted that there are numerous exemptions in statutes to protect the information of public safety workers and others.

Clerk Kristen Bryan stated that her interpretation of Ward’s statement was that “there’s an uncomfortableness about that [information] living in the portal, accessible, as you state.”

Book answered, “That is a natural inclination when discussing transparency and governmental and bureaucratic documents. That is exactly what our colleagues in county government do. Many municipalities and governmental bodies make public records available to anybody. The Clerk’s office benefits directly from its efficiencies, as previously discussed.

Ward stated that anyone can request a record, but he was concerned that the information would be easily accessible. I’m not uncomfortable with public politicians; I’m uncomfortable with community members and City workers that operate on a different level.”

Bryant clarified that “flipping the switch” means that after a public records request is granted, it becomes publicly available to the community. People would no longer need to file public records requests and could simply search a database. The system is designed for such. There are a few jurisdictions that flick the switch. I believe that the majority of Florida’s jurisdictions lack access to that repository.”

There were no public comments on the motion.

Ward expressed concern about fulfilling public records requests for exonerated individuals, citing potential ill purpose. That doesn’t make anything awful; it just made me a little skeptical about how certain people approach things, and I hate to be jaded, but that’s where I am.

The book stated that the topic was not on the agenda, unlike three previous motions passed during the meeting (a ballot referendum on GRU governance, exploring options for reverting Lynch Park to the donor’s heirs and hiring homeless people as downtown Ambassadors). This resulted in a lack of public input.

My main problem is not whether the motion is made, but rather that it is presented at the end of the nocturnal game without prior notice. I believe we are better served as a group when topics are [put on the agenda], allowing people to weigh in, look at it, investigate it, and then come back. And if we still made that determination, we did it.”

Ward said, “That’s fine, but we had a pretty public conversation about it the other day, and I believe I misunderstood. It’s that simple. This has been a day of sudden movements, but that is where we are at the moment.”

The motion to reverse the prior decision to “flip the switch” on JustFOIA passed 3-2, with Commissioners Book and Casey Willits dissenting and Duncan-Walker and Saco absent.

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