Florida woman claims small-town freedom-of-information victory

Wednesday, September 29, 1999

Melissa Sue Brewer seldom works around her Myakka City, Fla., home these days without thinking about how the state's public records law worked for her.

She remembers a morning last August when she heard men loudly swearing near the street. As Brewer and her dog reached a fence at the edge of her front yard, she discovered that the men were part of a prison road crew.

The prisoners began directing slurs at her. Despite her pleas to a Manatee County Highway employee in a nearby truck, the men kept cursing.

“One of the inmates left his immediate work and rapidly approached me behind my fence and gate,” Brewer later wrote in a complaint to the Manatee County administrator's office. “His fists were clenched, his forearm muscles were flexed and he snarled with a toothless mouth. I implored the truck driver again to call the sheriff. His only response was to gaze down at me from his county truck and adjust his straw hat farther down his face. I fled.”

Reaching her house, she dialed 911. Deputies from the county sheriff's office quickly arrived and intervened.

But Brewer said her complaints to the county highway department went unanswered for several weeks. When county officials finally responded, they told Brewer that the driver had been reprimanded and ordered to attend a training class.

“My curiosity was piqued, because the letter reflected a more benign situation than what had occurred,” Brewer said. “Also, the letter seemed to deflect responsibility onto the sheriff's office. I'll tell you flat out, when the [sheriff's deputies] responded that day, they gave me peace. These people gave me something else.”

Using Florida's public records law, Brewer learned that no record of a disciplinary action appeared in the employee's file. By obtaining official reports of the incident, she found that the driver had blamed her for overreacting. Also, the driver had attended a training class two months before the incident. Brewer has pointed out these discrepancies to officials, and now awaits further action.

“If not for journalists squawking about First Amendment issues and the Florida Public Records Law, I may not have known what to do,” Brewer said. “I thought, 'I'm just a regular person. If reporters can do it, then maybe I can.'”

Brewer credits Lucy Morgan as her inspiration to seek the public records, citing the St. Petersburg Times reporter's work on a Pulitzer Prize-winning report on corruption in a Florida county sheriff's office.

“I love this lady,” Morgan said. “I don't know her, but I love her for doing this on her own. Usually it's someone calling me asking, 'Can you get this for me?'”

Morgan says the public too often views open access to records as a violation of privacy when it's really about government accountability. Access to public records, she says, enables citizens to learn about safety issues in their neighborhoods, about schools and about government officials.

“I'm glad to see citizens using it,” she said. “I think it can only help when they understand the importance of records.”

Sandra Chance, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida, agrees.

“We call [these laws] the 'public right to know' laws because they do assure the public's ability to find out what their local government and state agencies are doing in order to insure our democracy,” Chance said. “Citizens have to be informed about what their government is doing.”

And citizens do use public records laws, according to a series on freedom-of-information laws conducted by The Dallas Morning News several years ago. The newspaper found that about three-quarters of all requests for public records in Texas came from citizens, not journalists.

“One of the great myths of our time is that the media are the ones making the majority of the requests,” Chance said.

She says she often tells journalists that they can garner even more public support for open government by detailing how and where they get information for their reports.

“We need to tell people where this information comes from, so they understand why it's important to have open access,” Chance said. “It's important for journalists to write about how the public uses these records and what kind of difference it makes in their daily lives.”

Brewer says she's convinced.

“Whether or not the outcome is good, the law worked for me.”