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FLCGA keeping tabs on Florida’s stimulus funds

In an effort to expand its database of public records, the Florida Center for Government Accountability has been requesting and gathering documents from Florida’s 67 counties concerning the allocation of federal stimulus funds by local governments.

The requests were specifically for itemized budgets, associated drafts and documents related to the receipt of funds from the American Rescue Plan. The FLCGA’s team of researchers contacted each county’s designated records custodian, and in some cases their county attorney or administrator. Hundreds of emails were exchanged between Florida’s counties and FLCGA researchers to obtain these records.

In total, the team received 160 relevant documents from 60 Florida counties that outlined the ways in which 60 of Florida’s counties had allotted American Rescue Plan and CARES funds. These records will be used to supply a database to keep residents informed of their governments’ actions and their associations with big money, as well as hold local governments accountable.

Twenty-two counties answered that there were no responsive records to FLCGA’s request, which prompted researchers to send a second request asking for records related to the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES).

Several counties were considerably responsive, sending records or replies within a matter of days. The most immediately responsive out of these included Hardee, Flagler, St. Lucie, Indian River, and Orange counties. The designated custodians in these counties were quick to acknowledge our requests and provide relevant records.

Hardee and Collier counties reported that they had not drafted a budget for the funds, but were responsive in sending emails updating FLCGA on developments regarding the requested records.

Other counties, while eventually complying with the public records requests, were not as responsive. Two months after the FLCGA sent Taylor County a public records request for American Rescue Plan records, followed by an email reminder, FLCGA sent another request for CARES Act records. Taylor County responded with an email that was the exact copy of its original response to FLCGA’s very first request. Although Taylor County eventually complied with the second records request, their correspondence suggested a lack of attention to the actual records being requested in favor of shutting down the request as quickly as possible.

In another instance, it took three attempts to contact Hamilton County, only to learn that the county did not have a drafted budget. And in an email, whether it was meant to be sent to FLCGA or not, Glades County wrote that the public records requests were repeatedly vague and asked the county for records that they “did not have to provide.” Additionally, the custodian informed colleagues that the county attorney might need a “heads up.””

Several counties appeared to have ignored FLCGA’s requests altogether, putting them in the position of violating Florida law requiring all government agencies to respond to public records requests “promptly and in good faith.”

The FLCGA followed up with these 17 counties, and eventually received acknowledgments from every county as well as records of some kind from all but seven of them. FLCGA’s Director Barbara  Petersen said she is consulting with FLGCA’s Public Access Program Director and Legal Committee “about the clear violations of law.””

The FLCGA is still missing records from these seven counties: Bradford, Collier, Gadsden, Hernando, Jefferson, Sumter, and Union.

Only Hernando county formally requested payment, although several others, including Monroe County, mentioned payment amounts tied to work hours. Monroe initially requested payment, but after FLCGA requested a detailed estimate of work hours, Monroe sent records two weeks later without following up on their initial payment request.