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Florida Keys News
Thursday, January 10, 2013
District to open hotline records

How long should a public records request take?

Not three months, insists School District watchdog Larry Murray.

On Oct. 17, Murray says he sent the district a request for all the reports made to its Ethics Point whistle-blower hotline, at www.monroe.ethicspoint.com and 866-842-2093.

Friday, Murray may finally get his wish.

"That's the hope or expectation," said Murray, who had threatened to retain former State Attorney Dennis Ward to file an open-records lawsuit. "I'm told I'm going to get everything, but the big question is, what is everything? I've got floating numbers here."

At stake are reports filed by the public on the hotline by email and phone since it was set up, early in 2011, in response to a series of financial scandals that plagued the district.

The files are pubic record, and Murray wants to see what they contain. However, after months of frustration trying to obtain them, Murray asked Ward for help.

Prior to Tuesday's School Board workshop, Ward approached district lawyer Dirk Smits and Chief of Staff/Director of Finance Ken Gentile and asked for the information on Murray's behalf. He was told to expect the files via email.

Early Wednesday, Murray did indeed receive an email from Gentile containing a supposed summary of the information, but no actual files.

Later Wednesday, Ward informed Smits that the district could expect a lawsuit if all the information wasn't sent to Murray.

"Dennis and I agreed that we'll let this ride until Friday," Murray said. "If we don't get them, then on Monday I'll sign a retainer agreement. Once that step is taken, I won't be negotiating anymore."

Ward confirmed Wednesday that he would represent Murray in the matter.

"We got a report that's not as comprehensive as we'd like," Ward said. "This is not what Mr. Murray is looking for. I have a verbal commitment from Dirk Smits to turn the files over to Larry by Friday. They're on notice that if they don't comply by then, we're going to file an action in circuit court. Enough time has gone by."

Ward insisted the threat of a suit is purely a negotiating mechanism, and that Murray's only interest is in obtaining the files so he can examine them.

"I really don't want to take money from the School Board," Ward said. "I spoke to [Superintendent Mark Porter] yesterday, and I think they're going to comply with this. We'll see how that works out."

Murray echoed Ward's sentiment.

"I'm not anxious to file suit, but I expected transcripts, not a summary," Murray said. "If we go to court, it's pretty clear that they'll lose, and then they're going to have to pay all of Smits' bills, and my [lawyer's] bills. We don't want it to go that far."

For his part, Porter pronounced himself eager to make the situation go away.

"It's our obligation to reply to a public records request," he said. "It's not clear to me why we haven't been able to produce them in a timely manner.

"I've initiated the process to make sure they're handed over by the end of the day Friday. Until the request, I was not even familiar with the hotline. All of this has been a bit of a learning experience for me as well. But I don't like to make excuses. We need to do a better job with requests like this. Period."

tschmida@keysnews.com

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