It all started with a simple public records request that I made to Alyce Robertson, the Executive Director of the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) on July 7, 2014, for an electronic copy of the email addresses that the DDA used to send out newsletters and other documents to the residents and businesses within the DDA's boundaries.
The email addresses that I asked for were maintained by Constant Contact, in what are interchangeably referred to in Florida courts and legal opinions as Native Electronic Format files, or Comma Separated Value (CSV) files.
If you've ever used Excel, the data generated by that program are maintained in a CSV format.
Instead of complying with my request, Robertson replied:
After receiving Robertson's response, I wrote her a second, and more detailed request that included the following rebuttal to her claim that no list "exists at the Miami DDA, electronic, or paper."
In the days that followed, I had conversations with Assistant City Attorney George Wysong, who advised me that he was contacting the Florida Attorney General's Office to see if there was any wiggle room in the law that would allow the city to deny my request, and I also started an email correspondence with Miami City Attorney Victoria Mendez over Robertson's refusal to provide me with a copy of the email addresses.
Among several truly amazing responses that I received from the Mendez before I filed my lawsuit against the DDA and Robertson was the comment that I've highlighted below, because it's indicative of the kind of, "We're really stupid and don't know how to do stuff," responses that the Mayor of Miami, some City Commissioners, and many senior employees have used over the years to try and evade complying with my and other people's public records requests.
Eight hours later, I got this email from Deputy City Attorney Barnaby Min, walking back Mendez's admission to the existence of an "electronic copy," of the emails that I had asked for.
One of the reasons Constant Contact has been so successful has been their simple and straightforward design that makes downloading emails stored in their address books easy enough that even a 3rd grader could do it.
To claim, as Mendez did, that no one knew how to use the program - a claim that was refuted during depositions taken of city employees after my lawsuits were filed - only provided evidence of Mendez's willful efforts to lie in an effort to throw up imaginary roadblocks so as to deny me the documents I requested.
In a prior lawsuit that I was forced to file after Mendez told me to my face that "there were no electronic records," when I asked for copies of all of the Proclamations, Awards, Certificate Of Appreciation and Key's To The City issued by Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones, the 2nd paragraph of the City's response to my lawsuit, started:
Dubbin's motion, along with other examples of City of Miami officials, including the Mayor and City Commissioners engaging in questionable and/or illegal behavior were included in a Crespogram Rant that I wrote on March 16, 2015.
This was just one of a half-dozen or more stories and rants that I've written about the flagrant and willful misbehavior of Mendez and others in the city when it came to witholding public records.
IN FOR A PENNY, IN FOR A POUND
In addition to requesting the email addresses from the DDA in 2014, I also made a similar request to the Mayor, Commissioner Marc Sarnoff and Communication's Director Angel Zayon for their email address lists, as well as documents related to the Mayor's foreign travels.
The refusal of these individuals to respond to my requests became the basis of the 2nd lawsuit that my attorneys filed in August of 2014,, and that has yet to be resolved.
At this point I'm sure that some of you will be confused because Florida known as a state with one of the strongest public records laws in the country, and because of that you find it difficult to believe that this kind of behavior could be going on as openly and flagrantly as it is.
I have people all the time who think that public officials always obey the law and tell me that I should just go and ask for this public record, or that public record and I will discover that the story they've told me will be verified by those documents.
Sometimes, I'm able to do that. Over the years though, it's become an almost constant battle to pry public records from the City of Miami and other agencies.
The reason for that is obvious. When I start asking for public records it's almost always because I'm looking for documents that will provide evidence of embarrassing and/or potential serious illegal activities engaged in by some public official.
Some people look on me as the Grim Reaper when I show up, because I haven't come by for afternoon tea.
HOW ALYCE ROBERTSON AND I BECAME BEST PALS
My relationship with Alyce Robertson and the DDA started in 2011, when I discovered and wrote a series of stories of how the DDA had engaged in a sneaky process to send out post cards to residents in the DDA District for them to use to apply for an Absentee Ballot.
The sneaky part was that the return address on those postcards was not the address of the Miami-Dade Board of Elections, but rather it was the DDA's address.
The reason was because the Chairman of the DDA was then Miami City Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, who was running for reelection. The DDA and a member of Sarnoff's staff came up with this scheme as a way to mine the information of the people who requested an Absentee Ballot in order to create a data base for Sarnoff to use to reach all of the voters who lived in the condos along Brickell Avenue.
In short, the DDA first routed the Absentee Ballot requests to their office, and after they mined that information, they sent the requests on to the Elections Board.
After I discovered this scheme, I requested copies of the information they had collected, and the DDA objected. Their first effort to block me was asking the City Attorney to issue a legal opinion that would deny me access. When that failed, Alyce Robertson got Julie Bru, then the City Attorney, to request a legal opinion from the Florida Attorney General.
After the Attorney General's office declined to get involved, they passed the buck on to the Florida Secretary of State, who ruled in my favor, forcing the DDA to turn over all of the information that I had asked for.
Alyce Robertson has been pissed at me ever since.
MY 2014 REQUEST
My goal in seeking the email addresses - and one that I had publicly stated on many occasions before and after I asked for them and filed my lawsuit was to get a copy of those email address and make them available to all the candidates who would be running for the District 2 Commission seat in 2015.
You can't begin to have a fair election when one candidate can exclusively use information collected by a city agency - in this case the approximately 14,000 emails that the DDA used to send out their newsletters - while all of the other candidates are denied access to that information.
This was especially important when Teresa Sarnoff announced that she was going to run for the District 2 seat to replace her husband because he had termed out, and even though I made my request in July of 2014, the probability of Teresa running was already being discussed as a done deal and I wanted to get an early start because I knew that Robertson would no turn over those email addresses without a fight.
THE CITY/DDA TRIES TO PLAY ROPE-A-DOPE
On August 4th, I was informed that the DDA had come up with the list of email addresses that I asked for and showed up at the City Attorney's office where I was provided with a DVD that turned out to contain a PDF of the email addresses printed out as a Word document, and I was asked to sign a release form.
My response made clear what I though of this ruse.
These emails represented a clear breach of the Florida Bar's Rules of Professional Behavior.
Even before August 4th, I figured that the only way II would ever get those email addresses was to file a lawsuit, and I reached the O'Boyle Law Firm who specializes in public records lawsuits. After explaining my situation they agreed to represent me on a contingency basis. In short, if successful, I would get the documents they would get their costs.
After the August 4th effort to rope-a-dope me, the law firm filed two lawsuits on August 14th, one against the DDA and the other against the City of Miami.
Eight days after the lawsuits were filed, and weeks after I had been told that there were no records - electronic or paper - and that there was no one in the city smart enough who knew how to use Constant Contact, I got this email from Victoria Mendez.
Both lawsuits proceeded to drag on for the next 3 years, as time after time the City Attorney's office kept coming up with excuses for why their attorney would not be available for a deposition, or all the other shuck and jive excuses that lawyers who want to drag a case out use as stalling tactics.
During those 3 years, I submitted requests, and received the email address lists from several other City Commissioners and city agencies who also used Constant Contact or Mail Chimp, the other popular email delivery program that works the same way as Constant Contact does, and in every case I received these email addresses in the CSV format that I had asked the DDA to provide me their email addresses.
Their responses undermined the DDA's claim that they were unable to provide me with these emails in a similar format, and in November of 2016, the city in response to someone else's request for the email addresses provided that individual with tens of thousands of email addresses, including both the Communication Department's and the DDA's complete email list in a CSV format, completely undermining the DDA's case.
I should explain here why receiving these email addresses in a CSV format was so important. CSV is a data format, which allows the user to take that information and import it into another program that uses the same CSV format.
My goal had been to obtain and then provide the candidates these email addresses in a format that they could then just drag and drop into their own data base program, What Alyce Robertson and Victoria Mendez tried to do by giving me those 14,000 email addresses as a Word document in a PDF, was to make anyone who I gave that document to type in every single address.
Because so much government information is now stored in a CSV format, the state has created a manual specifically to deal with ELECTRONIC RECORDS AND RECORDS MANAGEMENT PRACTICES, that details what constitutes an electronic record, and how they are to be treated as public records, subject to all of the provisions and rules that govern the access of paper documents.
THE IMPORTANCE OF PUBLIC RECORDS
I have written repeatedly about the importance of public records as one of the few ways available for citizens to try and keep track of what politicians and public officials are up to.
It's a never ending fight, which over the years has become more difficult because politicians have come up with new schemes to thwart access to public records, and because much of the public neither understands or supports the efforts required to pry documents loose from public officials who have reason not to want their activities made public.
The celebration and so-called support of Florida's Public Records Law is often little more than lip service limited to the annual Sunshine Law Week celebrations where everyone places one hand over their heart, and crosses the fingers of their other hand behind their back, while proclaiming their abiding support for both the Public Records Law and the Sunshine Law.
In all too many instances during the last 7 years, it's become a charade that starts at the top with Rick Scott, the Governor of Florida, who has repeatedly violated and abused the public records law to keep his antics secret behind closed doors.
The efforts by Scott to evade the law have not only undermined respect for the law, but they have also resulted in his having to pay $700,000 of our money to settle 7 public record lawsuits
The abuse of these laws has become wholesale, and the fights to force public officials to release public records have increasingly fallen on the shoulders of bloggers and local activists, with little support from local news media, who only get on their high-horse of indignation when one of their reporters is denied documents.
Fortunately, there are people inside of government offices sickened by what they see happening around them, and continue to walk out the door with the documents that have made it possible for me, and other bloggers and activists to keep exposing the sleazy, unethical and even illegal behavior that passes for municipal governance in Miami-Dade County.
It's Miami, Bitches salutes and thanks you! We couldn't do it without you! Keep it up!!
Make no mistake, Mendez did not lie just to me. She, and several of her Assistant City Attorneys also repeatedly lied to other folks seeking public records, and on several occasions a couple of these lawyers even walked into courtrooms and lied to judges.
During the 4 years Mendez has been the City Attorney, she and some of the lawyers in her office have behaved in what I have repeatedly claimed was the kind of behavior one would expect from an organized criminal enterprise.
As one example of just how badly these lawyers behaved, Sam Dubbin, the attorney for Coalition Against Causeway Chaos, the group who've waged a multi-year fight against the Flagstone Group and their Watson Island project was forced to make a presentation to the Court over the city's persistent witholding of public records in their lawsuit against the City, that also included his filing a 260 page motion in the case entitled: THE CITY'S OBSTRUCTION OF CITIZEN'S ACCESS TO PUBLIC RECORDS.
Dubbin's motion chronicled a detailed, persistent and troubling list of efforts by the City Attorneys Office in an effort to withhold documents at almost any cost, including tarnishing their reputations.
Nor was it just Mendez and her attorneys who lied in an effort to withhold public records.
In another lawsuit against the City and Francisco Garcia, the City's Planning Director - whose department was at the center of many of the efforts to withhold documents from Sam Dubbin's clients - Grant Stern, one of a group of activists opposed to the building a Walmart in Mid-Town, succeeded in getting a judgement of attorney's fees from the court for $16,560 after the judge ruled that Garcia and the City had withheld documents.
THE SETTLEMENT AGREEMENT