14 Feb St. Petersburg council member picks up $900 tab after housing agency charges board member for public records
St. Petersburg City Council member Charlie Gerdes, right, shown here with Mayors George Cretekos of Clearwater and Bob Buckhorn of Tampa, paid $900 of his own money for records from the local housing authority. [SCOTT KEELER ( 2018)]
ST. PETERSBURG — The St. Petersburg Housing Authority board member who was told she would have to pay hundreds of dollars for copies of agency records is now going to receive them — but only through the generosity of a city council member.
City Council Chairman Charlie Gerdes on Tuesday hand-delivered a personal check of more than $900 to the agency to cover the cost of public records requests made by board member Terri Lipsey Scott. Officials at the housing agency had told Scott she would have to pay for records even though her role as board member, for which she is not paid, is to oversee the agency.
Gerdes said he disagrees with the agency charging board members but decided to pay because it’s more important that board members get the documents they need to do the job than "squabbling" over the policy. He said he had asked board members to be diligent in scrutinizing the agency and wanted to support them.
"When we interviewed these people for approval on the board, I looked them in the face and said, ‘I challenge you to be bold and courageous on behalf of our residents and we will have your back,’" Gerdes said. "I’m having her back."
Scott requested 14 different records in an email sent to the agency Jan. 10. They included minutes of meetings, staff evaluations of Housing Authority CEO Tony Love, travel and legal invoices and audio recordings of the agency’s personnel committee meetings, where Love’s annual evaluation takes place.
LaShunda Battle, the Housing Authority’s chief operating officer, told Scott she would have to pay $280 for agency records she requested to review. The cost would go up to as much as $400 if she wanted paper copies.
When Gerdes arrived at the agency’s office on Gandy Boulevard, he was told the cost had risen to more than $900, which includes two subsequent records requests submitted by Scott.
Housing Authority officials said in an email that the decision to charge Scott was in keeping with their public records policy. Love told council members at a meeting last week that producing the records would pull staff away from their daily work. In cases where requested documents can be easily and quickly obtained, board members would not be charged, Love said.
The seven commissioners who make up the Housing Authority’s governing board provide the only oversight of the agency. Commissioners are selected by the St. Petersburg mayor and approved by city council. But the agency is otherwise autonomous.
Officials with housing authorities in Tampa and Pinellas said they would never charge board members who requested documents since their job is to provide oversight of the agency. St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said the housing agency’s records policy was "beyond the pale."
Florida’s public records law states that agencies may charge a reasonable service fee to produce records when the request requires extensive use of technology or staff. But that does not mean the agency must charge a fee, said Barbara Peterson, president of the First Amendment Foundation, a Tallahassee non-profit group that advocates for freedom of information.
She said the purpose of Florida’s public records law is to increase government oversight and accountability.
"Members of the governing board have an even deeper duty, a fiduciary duty," she said. "To then turn around an ask them to pay hundreds of dollars for records is perplexing."
Contact Christopher O’Donnell at [email protected] or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_times.