By: The Ledger
Today is Sunshine Sunday, the start of Sunshine Week. That’s sunshine in the sense of open government.
Part 1 of 2
Anyone who wants a lesson in government in the sunshine should study the city operations of Lakeland, particularly the Police Department.
Sunshine searchers would not find the halls of Lakeland government to be a font of forthrightness or clarity, despite a number of willing workers and police officers.
Examples that exist have been overwhelmed during the past 15 months by a devious darkness meant to obscure illegal and inappropriate practices, and a slew of scandals — sexual violations, incompetence, rich spending and much more.
When it comes to government in the sunshine, there is no place in Florida where so many shades are drawn, doors are slammed and record books are closed as in Lakeland.
In January 2013, The Ledger found requests for public records made of the Police Department delayed, ignored or partially delivered.
In an interview, then-Police Chief Lisa Womack said her department liked to play a “cat-and-mouse” game with public records requested by news organizations.
The State Attorney’s Office confirmed the city’s insolence when it sent three undercover investigators to the Police Department to request records.
The recordkeepers were uncooperative. The records the investigators received were incomplete.
The poor response was used as an example by a Polk County grand jury convened by the State Attorney’s Office. It was described in an investigative report called a presentment, which was produced by the grand jury Feb. 14, 2013.
Ten months would pass before the presentment would see the light of public distribution.
During that time, the city of Lakeland set a budget of $225,000 to pay the legal fees of employees and officials connected to the grand jury’s inquiry.
Nearly all of the $225,000 was spent to protect the seal of secrecy that the employees’ lawyers had convinced Circuit Court Chief Judge William Bruce Smith to put on the presentment.
Only after a three-judge panel of the 2nd District Court of Appeal in Lakeland unanimously overturned Smith’s order to seal the presentment did it become public Dec. 13.
The presentment detailed the undercover visits to Lakeland, and the incomplete public records received. As the presentment said, “There is no reason to believe that any other citizen walking into LPD to request records would have a different experience.”
Controlling access to public records is one way to put a lid on the truth of city matters.
Paying a public relations firm to tell officials what to say about city developments is another way to control public records — determining content in advance of it being recorded.
That’s what City Manager Doug Thomas did by hiring — with the aid of City Attorney Tim McCausland — the Tampa PR firm of Tucker/Hall. The firm charges as much as $350 per hour. It has charged the city $129,425 so far and is still under contract.
Thomas hired Tucker/Hall in expectation that police crime analyst Sue Eberle would sue the city over a sex scandal that involved her. Ten on-duty police officers committed sexual acts, and more than 20 officers took part in total.
Since setting terms in a July 16 letter that limited the PR work to a potential Eberle lawsuit, the firm’s work has spread to other matters, including the grand jury presentment and speechwriting for Thomas.
Thomas sought approval for hiring Tucker/Hall in a closed procedure — private, individual meetings with city commissioners and the mayor.
Florida’s Government-in-the-Sunshine Law prohibits the making of board decisions by gathering approval from members one-by-one.
Thomas did not bring up the approval request in a meeting of the full City Commission.
Fifteen months after its cat-and-mouse game began, not one lumen has lighted important parts of Lakeland’s city government.