By: Glenn Marston
Read a governmental agency’s financial budget to understand its operation, “how folks are spending your money,” says Jerry Couey, 54. He works for an energy company and lives in Milton, which is five miles northeast of Pensacola.
In 2005, to confirm his suspicions of mismanagement by Team Santa Rosa, the county economic-development council, Couey asked for a copy of its budget.
“They told me I’d have to go see the county budget director,” Couey said.
The Florida Public Records Law requires “all documents” related to “official business by any agency” to be provided without delay.
“That started a chain of events that lasted about six, almost seven years,” Couey says. Links in that long chain included the attorney general, the Office of Open Government, then-Gov. Charlie Crist, the state attorney, the Internal Revenue Service and the FBI.
Crist gave a speech in town. The governor gave Couey a turn at the microphone. He asked Crist to encourage the state attorney to recognize “Sunshine problems in his district and that maybe he should take an interest in it.” At 9 the next morning, the State Attorney’s Office called Couey, eager take on the problems.
Years of digging into public records paid off. The council’s director was removed. “The organization,” Couey says, “was completely dismissed by a 5-0 vote by the county commissioners, and we started over again.”
Couey offers a couple of tips for those seeking public records:
– “You always ask to inspect. There’s no charge to inspect.”
– “The big key is requesting the right records.” If a record request is not precise, Couey says, “they will copy ‘War and Peace,’ which is 900-some pages, and hand it to you and charge you 15 cents a page — and what you really wanted still won’t be in there.”