‘Big Brotherish’ blunder

By THE PALM BEACH POST
Updated: 9:15 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2012
Posted: 7:12 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2012

Three weeks ago, one of West Palm Beach’s senior planners was accused of violating city rules. Her sin: revealing “confidential city information.”

For this supposed offense, the city planner, Linda Mia Franco, was recommended for termination, and the bid to have her fired ended only after The Post’s Andrew Abramson asked questions about the case. She ultimately was suspended for a week.

There are several problems here, but the most egregious is the assertion that Ms. Franco had improperly revealed “confidential city information.” There was nothing confidential about the information she was chided for releasing. Indeed, Florida’s public records laws make “confidential city information” mostly an oxymoron.

The trouble for Ms. Franco started in January when another city official forwarded an email from a resident raising questions about the city’s decision to allow a gated community to cut down oak trees. Responding to the email, Ms. Franco attached a city report that suggested the oaks had not caused as much damage as the gated community had claimed in justifying their removal.

Several people seized on it as proof that the oaks should not have been torn down, and The Post wrote about it. Afterward, city administrators went through email records to determine who had released the document. When they found out it was Ms. Franco, Doug Wise, the city’s development services director, moved to have her fired.

That the city worked so hard to root out the source of a public record says something about its tolerance for openness. That it tried to fire the leaker under the pretense or delusion that the document was “confidential” should be chilling to residents. Many government agencies have protocols for releasing public records, but pretending that they are not public should not be among them.

So “confidential” was the report in question that it was already available on the city’s website when Ms. Franco emailed it. She pointed this out in her defense and observed that her job calls for her to “respond to planning-related inquiries from the general public.”

City Commissioner Keith James said the situation seemed “kind of Big Brotherish.” Mayor Jeri Muoio acknowledged the termination was “poorly worded.” But it was more than that. It spoke to a fundamental misunderstanding of the city’s obligation to transparency.

– Andrew Marra,

for The Palm Beach Post Editorial Board

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