Jensen Beach activist complained that public records fees would hinder his effort to get county project info

STUART – Jensen Beach activist Tom Pine told the Martin County Commission May 7 he believed the Board was using the Consent Agenda and excessive public records fees to hide how taxpayer money is spent.

“This morning I see the Consent Agenda is full of payments to different places that we no longer know where our money is going,” he said during public comment. “It seems kind of deceitful not to let the taxpayers know where specifically our tax dollars are going.”

The May 8 Consent Agenda contained four contracts over $500,000 that met the Board’s threshold for approval without further discussion, ranging from sidewalk construction to parks facilities repair, airport taxiway rehabilitation and construction and demolition debris processing, the latter of which was subsequently removed for further discussion before approval.

Mr. Pine particularly expressed frustration over seeing the estimated bill for his latest public records request.

“I recently made a public records request and wanted to know how much money we have spent – wasted – on the Rio [traffic] circle in Downtown Rio [and] the reconstruction and the subsequent rebuilding of the curb,” he said. “It doesn’t seem like it’s too big of a deal to find out how much a project cost in Martin County, so I got my answer back yesterday. It will be a little over $500 for me to get that information. So, we have meetings now that [via the] Consent Agenda we’re not going to show how much we’re spending and where, and it cost $500 to find out how much a single project cost in the county.”

The activist, who regularly addresses the Board on community concerns and usually brings photographs, compared his present problems with a time period many years ago when the county bought out the homes on his street due to Witham Field safety concerns.

“It’s like a flashback to me during the airport era, when I lived on 18th Street,” Mr. Pine exclaimed. “That’s the street that no longer has houses on it in Martin County after the illegal expansion of Runway 1230, when we couldn’t get information and everything was hidden from us, just like this is now. This is why we the taxpayers continue to vote no every time the County Commission tries to raise our taxes because we want to know where the money’s going first before we start spending more money.”

After the public comment period ended, Chairman Ed Ciampi asked County Administrator Taryn Kryzda to try and help clear up the citizen’s public records runaround.

“So that everyone understands what Mr. Pine was speaking of, can you give us sort of an idea of how that works and what would the request be that would create potentially a $500 bill?” he asked. “Are there ways that citizens can come and see documents here in person that wouldn’t require an expense?”

Chairman Ciampi then passed the request estimate Mr. Pine had brought for the Board’s perusal down to Ms. Kryzda, who immediately noted the estimate had come from Clerk of the Circuit Clerk and Comptroller Carolyn Timmann’s office and not from the Commission’s Public Records Liaison Sangeeta Maragh.

“Oh, this is from the clerk’s office,” she exclaimed. “If you make a public records request to the clerk’s office, they have to certify every single page, and it’s over a dollar a page. So, if you’re asking for financial information as a certified clerk document, then it would be [more costly].”

The chairman then labeled the confusion a “potential miscommunication.”

“I don’t believe Mr. Pine was looking to have those pages certified individually – I think he was looking for more universal information,” he explained. “So, I’m glad we had an opportunity to clarify that for Mr. Pine’s sake and for the folks that are listening at home that might be interested in making a public records request and think I can’t because it’s going to be hundreds of dollars.”

Ms. Kryzda explained that concerned citizens such as Mr. Pine should first contact Ms. Maragh’s office when looking for public records on projects such as the Rio roundabout rehabilitation. Even so, she emphasized, they might still have to head to the circuit clerk for particular information or older materials.

“If an individual is looking for specific financial information, we will point them to the clerk’s office because she is your actual comptroller to the Board and does have the official records, but if it’s something we can provide on our side through our financial system, we will do that,” she said. “Sometimes we have to ask individuals to get with the clerk because they’re looking for agendas from prior years that we don’t still have on our system.”

For his part, Chairman Ciampi said he’d noticed a bank of computers at Ms. Timmann’s office that he believed were free for the public to use for public records access. He then asked confirmation from her Deputy Clerk Mary K. Vettel, who attends each Commission meeting and keeps its records.

“Official records are a dollar per page, and if their certified, there’s an additional charge for that,” she explained. “But you can look at anything you want -- there’s no charge to just go research. It’s just if you actually want copies, that’s when the cost kicks in.”

When Chairman Ciampi said he hoped staff had helped Mr. Pine clear up his confusion, the latter didn’t think the error had been on his part.

“I’m sure that’s not how it happened,” he responded from the gallery. “I made that request as the website cites for information – I didn’t go to the clerk on this one.”

To avoid a similar issue, members of the public desiring a public records request should avoid doing a Google search for Martin County public records requests, which automatically begins with the circuit clerk and comptroller website. Instead, they should first call Ms. Maragh at (772) 419-6959 or email her at public_records@martin.fl.us.

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