Manatee School Board member Dave ‘Watchdog’ Miner at center of Sunshine lawsuits against district

BRADENTON HERALD

March 15, 2015

By: Meghin Delaney

BRADENTON — In September, three separate entities requested identical records from the Manatee County School District concerning emails sent by board member Dave “Watchdog” Miner.

As of March, those requests have gone unanswered, prompting a Sunshine lawsuit, as the local entities seek records they’re legally entitled to under Florida’s Sunshine Laws, which covers school districts.

It is not the only Sunshine lawsuit involving the school district in the past year, a costly endeavor for a district mired in other legal disputes.

As the state’s newspapers focus on Sunshine laws this week, the Bradenton Herald took a look at how our own local agencies — including schools, county and city governments — handle Sunshine requests. The results run the gamut, from free access to elected officials’ emails, to charges for everything, including email searches.

The Manatee County School District charges $45.51 per hour for records requests that involve “extensive IT” work, based on the hourly rate of the employee conducting the work. Requests that involve putting information on CDs cost $1.50 per CD, or the requester can provide their own CD.

Following state guidelines, the school district charges up to 15 cents per page for a one-sided copy and 20 cents per page for a two-sided copy. There’s a $1 charge for a certified copy of a public record.

For the most part, one or two single email exchanges can be fulfilled at no cost through a very specific request, meaning you have to know exactly what you want. But certain requests, like all emails sent by school board members from their board-issued email accounts for a one-week period, will cost two-hours worth of IT work, for a total of $91.

In an era where the Manatee County School District is trying to promote transparency, the district has seen record numbers of public records requests and has been served with at least four Sunshine-related lawsuits, costing taxpayers money and pulling resources away from classrooms.

“We certainly do our best,” district spokesman Steve Valley said. “We have to be as transparent as we can.”

Valley’s office handles public records requests, and the requests are filtered through one employee. Valley said the limited resources of one employee, who also has other responsibilities, can sometimes slow down the process.

“We do our best. We need everyone to cooperate and participate,” he said. “It’s not a perfect process.”

In September, the district paid Michael Barfield, an open government advocate and legal consultant in Sarasota, more than $21,000 in attorney’s fees over a public records request he filed in 2013. When the district did not comply, Barfield sued. The courts ruled in his favor.

The board also settled a lawsuit in early January with Our Public Records LLC, which had sued the district in September over an open records request. The district provided the records and the suit was settled with the district paying its own legal fees.

A lawsuit filed by local nonprofit Citizens for Sunshine ultimately caused the district to cancel a contract with a security company. The district failed to follow Sunshine guidelines by allowing the committee to meet in private to pick a security company for elementary schools. Citizens for Sunshine sued the district in September. The district admitted fault and settled for $10,775. That resulted in yet another lawsuit from the security company, claiming breach of contract.

While those three lawsuits have been settled, there is still a Sunshine lawsuit pending against the district. Chad Ritchie, the head of Sarasota Security Patrol, is suing the district claiming it has refused to provide records covered under the Sunshine Law.

Ritchie filed a public records request for all the personal and work cell phone records and personal and work emails for Miner. He wants the emails and phone calls Miner made to the media as well as to local attorneys and the board clerk.

Miner opposed hiring private security guards, calling them “rent-a-cops” and advocating local law enforcement officers be hired instead.

On Oct. 31, the final day security officers worked in the schools, Ritchie made another public records request for all work emails Miner sent to board members, Superintendent Mills and the media between Oct. 13-31.

The lawsuit says the requests were acknowledged, but the district said Ritchie would have to pay a fee. When Ritchie attempted to pay for the request, he was told the records were not ready and he would be called with a final amount when they were ready.

Ritchie and his lawyers thought suing was their last course of action, David Montgomery, Ritchie’s lawyer, told the Bradenton Herald.

“We really had no choice,” he said.

Miner did not return a message left with his secretary on Friday.