“The roadblocks that have been erected so far by Orange County are distressing. Advances in technology should make access to public records easier and cheaper. Instead, technologies such as Dropbox are being used to shield and obstruct access to basic government information. We believe this lawsuit will have statewide implications for how governments utilize this new technology.”
– Barbara Petersen, president of Florida’s First Amendment Foundation
JUST THE STATS
Number of people Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs’ office said had access to the county’s Dropbox account on Sept. 4. As of Sept. 26, that number, according to Jacobs, was actually 18, and included all county staff, not just mayoral staff
Number of minutes between when Organize Now submitted its first public records request and the time the county changed the password on its Dropbox
Number of minutes it took the county to remove 18 devices from its Dropbox account. More devices were removed following subsequent public records requests
The warbling trills of Barbra Streisand’s “The Way We Were” could be heard in the distance on Friday, Sept. 26, when we found ourselves, once again, staring down an Orange County public records scandal outside the Orange County Courthouse. Hell-raising citizens group Organize Now held court on the steps of the courtyard in the middle of the courthouse square to tell the assembled media that they were suing the county (with the assistance of the First Amendment Foundation) because, once again, they uncovered some evidence that the county has been destroying public records, this time utilizing the vagueness of the cloud; specifically, Dropbox.
The group has its own horse in the race – or, rather, a collection of horses: the great textgate scandal of 2012 effectively destroyed an initiative they sponsored after more than 50,000 signatures were gathered to get an earned sick time measure on the ballot; Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs and her band of text-message erasers somehow walked away unscathed from the incident (minus $500 fines levied by an almost-too-friendly State Attorney Jeff Ashton and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement); the Board of County Commissioners has been hard at work killing and resurrecting ballot language for charter amendments to limit citizen participation, among other senseless power grabs; the unbearable lightness of the state’s rigid Sunshine Laws ought to be more bearable in general. But, alas, the county is playing hardball again, just about two years to the date from its last infraction.
Organize Now director Stephanie Porta stood in front of a gathered throng holding (again) a “Don’t Delete Democracy” banner – good thing she saved it from the last time she did this – and detailed the timeline of what she says took place. Basically, the group was “tipped off” about a month ago that the county was employing the Internet cloud for all sorts of elevated business, from talking points to speeches to private winks and nudges. On Sept. 3, Organize Now reached out to Orange County Comptroller Martha Haynie to ask for an audit of the system. Haynie forwarded it to Ashton’s office, prompting a story on WESH-2 News in which Jacobs said she was certain this was foolishness and that she welcomed an investigation. Meanwhile, Organize Now entered its own series of public records requests about the Dropbox contents, regularly consulting with the county attorney’s office to get the parameters right (which meant 13 requests were filed). Invoices obtained by Happytown show that the county was being a little prohibitive with its cash register though: more than $1,000 was requested for it to cough up records dating back to Sept. 2, 2011, when the Dropbox was first activated.
After telling us that, to her knowledge, Dropbox documents are permanently unavailable 30 days after manual deletion, Porta referenced the absence of a paper trail on this year’s charter (or “Brummer,” because Commissioner Fred Brummer “wrote” them) amendments.
“The public deserves to know who is pushing these propositions,” she said.
If all this seems to be getting boring – stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before, Morrissey – it isn’t. The very act of filing the suit on Friday brought an unexpected tinge of acrimony to the dooming September sky. Jacobs, presumably without consulting a public relations consultant (but we’ll never know!), decided to throw a tantrum for the media out on International Drive. We, naturally, weren’t invited, but we have had access to a recording of it, and much of the juicy bits were thrown up on television or into print accordingly, including the part where she went after Porta personally, calling her a liar, for even raising the idea that lobbyists might have access to the county’s Dropbox. Heavens, no! “They know they’re lying to you,” Jacobs said. “They’re lying to you, they’re lying to the press. She knows that.”
She went on to detail Porta’s actions in trying to draw attention to the Dropbox scandal.
“This is nothing more than a politically motivated attack,” Jacobs sweated. “They’re lying to you. They’re lying to the press. … Just know that everything she told you is false. … It’s baseless and bunk.”
Jacobs also tried to explain the temporary nature of Dropbox in the chain of county computer chatter, saying that all files are eventually moved into other drives, because we have “all these different drives.”
That’s comforting! The activity log so far released by the county shows numerous files being deleted from the Dropbox on Sept. 5, the day after Greg Fox went after Jacobs on WESH. On Sept. 8, the day Organize Now put in its request, 18 devices were removed. And though the county wants to say this is common practice, and that all the public information requests from Organize Now are too much and would “cost an inordinate amount of taxpayer dollars,” the records also show that this mass deletion of data from the county’s Dropbox is not a common pattern at all. Last time there was a mass cleansing was in February, back when the charter amendment nonsense started. Before that, everyone was just signing in and adding things. Correlation or causation, it looks bad when the only time you choose to clean the house is when the media is coming. Oh, and when you do so – which the county apparently has, as it’s made a big point about the danger of releasing IP addresses so basically everything released so far is redacted to the point of binary code on one long log – maybe don’t make such a stink about it? Makes you look like a liar.
“It’s sad to see that the mayor’s response to our transparency concerns is a very personal attack,” Porta says in reaction to the mayor’s accusations. “I will not do that. And I hope she’s not calling the First Amendment Foundation or Barbara Peterson liars. A respected open government group has followed our efforts closely, and after experiencing the same Sunshine frustrations, agreed to help in our lawsuit.”