COST OF THE ORANGE COUNTY COMMISSION’s ATTEMPT TO UNDERCUT DEMOCRACY. THIS IS EXACTLY EQUAL TO THE TOTAL OF THE FINES ASSESSED BY STATE ATTORNEY JEFF ASHTON ON FOUR COMMISSIONERS AND THE MAYOR FOR DELETING PUBLIC RECORDS FROM ELECTRONIC DEVICES
AMOUNT ORANGE COUNTY TAXPAYERS SPENT IN JUNE ON A NEW SYSTEM CALLED TEXTGUARD WHICH ARCHIVES TEXT AND DIGITAL COMMUNICATIONS OF THE COUNTY’S 2,000 EMPLOYEES WITH COUNTY-ISSUED DEVICES FOR FUTURE PUBLIC RECORDS CONCERNS
NUMBER OF VERIFIED PETITIONS SUBMITTED BY CITIZENS FOR A GREATER ORANGE COUNTY IN FAVOR OF EARNED SICK TIME IN AUGUST 2012
“MY CONCLUSION, THEREFORE, IS THAT THESE TEXT MESSAGES WERE PUBLIC RECORDS AND COULD ONLY LAWFULLY BE DISPOSED OF PURSUANT TO STATUTE. THE STATUTORY PROCEDURES IN THIS CASE WERE NOT FOLLOWED AND, THEREFORE, ALL OF THE OFFICIALS WHO DELETED TEXT MESSAGES RELATED TO THIS ISSUE VIOLATED FLORIDA LAW.”
– ORANGE-OSCEOLA COUNTY STATE ATTORNEY JEFF ASHTON
Sources: State Attorney’s Office, orangecountyfl.net
In a week that saw insult virtually copulating with injury – just throw the entire county commission, the region’s business and political interests and a slightly underwhelming state attorney into a waterbed set to heavy vibrate and you’ll get the picture – we shouldn’t be surprised that the vaunted outcome of a nearly eight-month investigation into textgate left us with more questions than answers (or, more “sent” than “received”).
We did not, after all, expect too much from the joint investigation between lumpy State Attorney Jeff Ashton and the bumbling Florida Department of Law Enforcement, even though the staging of the Aug. 27 announcement hinted at something bordering on accountability for a delete-happy county commission hell-bent on erasing last year’s earned sick-time initiative from existence. So we played along, hoping that maybe Ashton would take Mayor Teresa Jacobs and her band of commissioners to task.
And – at least at first – it seemed like he was going to. In a statement released Wednesday morning, Ashton sounded almost tough, referring to the commissioners and mayor as people who “violated Florida law.” Ah, sweet justice! But then everything pixilated into tiny details that eventually revealed that the five officials would not face criminal penalties for their actions. Rather, they got off on the cheap with a mere $500 civil fine apiece. Ashton, in a brief overview of the case email-blasted to the media, found that there was no proof that commissioners had violated public-meetings laws; they had only run afoul of public-records statutes by accidentally erasing messages about public business. Poor things.
But how did he make that super-soft judgment? We didn’t receive the 154-page FDLE investigation summary until 15 minutes before the press conference at the courthouse Wednesday afternoon (where Ashton took questions, though when he and an FDLE official spoke, it didn’t seem like he had given it much thought). Just $500 a head, and the offending parties would realize that “we did something wrong and move on from that,” Ashton said.
From Ashton’s point of view, it’s not his job to say whether the county commissioners’ actions were right or wrong, just whether what they did was legal. And, sure, there is some room for that thin-line argument that maybe some people don’t understand the import of text messages as public records, but that probably shouldn’t be the whole argument. It was.
Perhaps even more disturbing was that Ashton apparently glazed over the full text of the Florida public-records statute (119.07) which states that information must be preserved for at least 30 days after a public-records request is made – and one was made by sick-time proponents the morning after the Sept. 11 meeting that birthed textgate. An official who fails to do so could face impeachment and a first-degree misdemeanor. Ashton blankly stared down a question about that statute and said, “I don’t know that I would have as broad an interpretation of that statute,” before reminding everybody that he did fine those who destroyed records, so justice was served – just a light, civil justice.
Most of the narrative comprised in the full FDLE investigation – which was open to interpretation and enforcement by Ashton alone – was clearly suspicious when not just being outright sickening. Each commissioner and lobbyist and county staffer interviewed sounded coached, and all of their excuses – including that of Commissioner Scott Boyd, who said his jealous girlfriend didn’t like it when his phone held texts from other ladies – rang hollow. Not a one of them thought there was anything wrong with deleting discussions about deleting democracy during a public meeting, and each made it clear that there was no threat of collusion between commissioners and staffers.
Except it’s as plain as day to any reasonable human being who has examined the (limited) evidence that has trickled out over the last year that there may well have been. If local Republican leader Lew Oliver is getting texts from Commissioner Fred Brummer saying to “stop” Commissioner Ted Edwards, that should raise a red flag. Ashton, however, called that very text “tongue-in-cheek” behavior between jovial officials. To read the FDLE report – and specifically Oliver’s loquacious diatribes – you would think that the GOP leader was a superhero “citizen” who managed to stop an entire initiative on his own (never mind that Disney and Darden were shooting in texts at the same time). This is some rotten Swiss cheese, and apparently Ashton has quite an appetite for the stuff.
And it’s not even over. As if on schedule, on Aug. 26, former state representative and Winter Park Mayor (and chamber guy) Allen Trovillion filed a lawsuit to have the now-mooted sick-time referendum removed from the 2014 ballot, even though a panel of three circuit judges mandated earlier this year that it be placed on said ballot. The suit calls the ballot question a waste of money and time, seeing as a new state law passed this year forbids counties from passing sick-time laws. Only, a single ballot question doesn’t cost any time or money, unless, that is, you have to get 50,000 petitions certified in order to be on that ballot. Which has already happened.
But we all know that doesn’t count. Well, at least we do now.
“Today, the state attorney reaffirmed what the courts and the citizens already knew – these commissioners colluded with corporate special interests like Disney, Olive Garden and Red Lobster to thwart the will of voters by refusing to put an earned sick-time referendum on the ballot. Commissioners tried to conceal their collusion but they got caught,” Organize Now director Stephanie Porta said in a statement after the Wednesday ruling. “These politicians are supposed to work for us, not their campaign contributors. When they don’t there should be consequences. Sadly, these politicians will hardly get a slap on the wrist for violating the public trust. When elected officials have a get out of jail free card nothing will ever change.”