News-Press

August 24, 2016

 

Attorney: State trying to bully public

By CHAD GILLIS, CGILLIS@NEWS-PRESS.COM

http://www.news-press.com/story/news/2016/08/24/attorney-state-trying-bully-public/89259018/?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter

A state agency charged with managing water is attacking the very public it represents, a growing number of critics say.

The South Florida Water Management District earlier this week sent an email notifying everyone it communicates with that Winter Haven attorney Lisa Interlandi made a Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, request.

FOIA requests are a common way for the public, including media organizations, to request government records.

The district fulfilled her request, but it also released contact information for Interlandi, essentially "outing" her as a potential troublemaker.

"In the past several months, this agency has sunk to new lows, publicly attacking scientists, individuals, environmental groups and government agencies involved in restoration efforts," said Interlandi, an attorney for the Everglades Law Center. "Never, in my 18-year career have I seen a government agency respond to the public in the way this agency has."

It's not illegal to release information about people who make FOIA requests, but it is considered by experts to be an unethical act that dissuades people from participating in their own government.

The subject line of the email reads: YOUR PRIVACY. Interlandi said she made the request to get email addresses the district used to criticize Audubon of Florida, which criticized a district decision during a recent public meeting.

"For her to ask who is getting that email is perfectly legitimate," said Barbara Petersen, with the First Amendment Foundation. "For a government agency to blast out 'look who is requesting your email address,' thatís completely inappropriate and I think an attempt at intimidation. Itís a very chilling effect."

Eric Draper, Audubon of Florida director, said the original issue was that the state was sending a letter to chastise the federal government for not ridding the Arthur R. Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge of damaging, invasive plants.

He brought up the letter to the federal government because the issue was not noticed to the public or on that day's agenda of the water district  Ė a questionable move because government agencies are supposed to give notice of any planned actions.

"It was clear that the other members of the governing board knew it was coming up," Draper said. "Iíd seen sugar lobbyists working the board on this issue before the meeting, so I knew something was coming."

District representatives, though, say the state sent out Interlandi's employment information and email address as a way to be transparent.

"It was to make sure that people who were on the email list for the water management district knew that a third party was requesting their information," said district spokesman Randy Smith. "The motive here was to do the right thing."

Smith said the district does not typically release information when a FOIA request is made. Interlandi, Smith said, crossed into new territory by asking for the email addresses of everyone the district sent an email to regarding the statement by Audubon of Florida.

"As you may know, such email lists and addresses are commercial commodities that are often bought and sold," the district email says. "The law prohibits SFWMD from asking about the intended use for the information. Any concern you may have about a potential invasion of privacy is understandable."

Smith said the district does not know why Interlandi made the requests, but it is district policy to release FOIA information when it includes email addresses.

FOIA requests are for government officials to give the public information about what the government is doing with the public's money.

The district has increasingly sent mass notices to this group of interested parties, which routinely get water district emails, warning of biased newspaper reports, falsepolitical claims and even the gathering of the public in Fort Myers.

Smith said he does not know of another instance in which email addresses themselves were sought through a FOIA request.

Petersen said there is no logic behind releasing this type of information, and that asking for email communications lists is a common practice for activists, special interest groups and various media.

"People request those email addresses all the time," she said.

Draper said the district has, at times, been out of line.

ďIíve never seen this (aggression) before,Ē he said. "Theyíve taken the offense. Itís a different style, hitting back at advocates and the others. (But) I think the district should remember they are a public agency and they work for us."

Connect with reporter: Chad Gillis on Facebook.