Florida school-board member jailed for refusing to release records

Tuesday, June 1, 1999

A Florida school board official last month completed seven days of a 30-day jail sentence after she refused to release public records to a Pensacola mother.

Open-government advocates hailed the conviction and subsequent jail sentence of Vanette Webb, a member of the Escambia County School Board since 1996, as a big step toward improving the public's access to records and meetings.

“This serves as a wake-up call to the many public officials in Florida who give the state open-government laws short shrift,” said Sandra Chance of the University of Florida's Brechner Center for Freedom of Information. “In the state of Florida, if you violate public records law or open meetings law, you can and will be jailed. The citizens are well served by this reminder to any public official who chooses to ignore the citizens' mandate for open government.”

A Florida grand jury indicted Webb last December for knowingly withholding public records. Violation of the state's public-records law is a misdemeanor charge that brings up to a $1,000 fine, a year in jail and removal from office.

In court, Susan Watson, a mother of three public school students, said she requested the records to understand Webb's voting patterns on school issues. Webb said she didn't release the records because they contained confidential information about students and employees.

The judge in the case said Webb's refusal constituted “misfeasance, malfeasance and/or neglect of her duties.” Webb was convicted and sentenced to 11 months and 15 days in jail. The judge suspended all but 30 days of the sentence. Webb served seven days of the sentence and was released on May 21.

(Editor's note: The First Amendment Center learned after this story was posted that Webb intermittently released some requested records before her trial, but has halted further release of records still being sought, according to the Pensacola News Journal.)

Neither Webb nor her attorney, Laura Whiteside of Tampa, returned calls.

Although Webb's jail time is possibly the first such sentence in Florida, freedom-of-information experts say it's likely the third or fourth time a public official has been locked up for refusing to release public records or for closing a meeting that should be open to the public.

In 1986, a judge jailed a director of Detroit's Community and Economic Development Department after he refused to turn over land records to the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News. Emmett S. Moten Jr. spent 11 hours in jail but was released when the city released about 800 pages of documents concerning city-owned property.

Two years later, Donald Paillen, Detroit's corporation counsel, was sentenced to jail after he refused to release records about a $42 million deal with Chrysler. The city claimed the records could be kept secret because a grand jury was investigating the deal.

Paillen was released after the Michigan Supreme Court refused to consider an appeal and the city turned the records over to the Detroit News.

Open-government advocates say many state laws merely impose small fines on violators.

But they said Webb's recent jail sentence shows that freedom-of-information laws can have teeth.

“To me, it gives some seriousness to the fact that FOI and open access laws are laws like any other law,” said Rebecca Daughtery of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “If you don't have sanctions for a law, it makes it very easy for public officials to ignore it. I don't know if every official who ignores public records request should be jailed in the future, but it [reinforces the] fact that it's a serious violation of the public trust.”