The Sewer District and the Streisand Effect

Have you ever heard of the Streisand effect?  From Wikipedia:barbra-streisand-20068836

The Streisand effect is the phenomenon whereby an attempt to hide, remove, or censor a piece of information has the unintended consequence of publicizing the information more widely, usually facilitated by the Internet.

There’s a microscopic version of that happening at the Key Largo Wastewater Treatment District (District) right now.  Folks who ask the “wrong” questions get stonewalled or treated like they’ve committed an offense.  That naturally creates tension, which then becomes the story.  I got a little taste of this myself just recently.  Here’s the story from the Free Press:  Wastewater board to vote on public records procedures.

I came to the District from the private sector.  For me, getting used the Sunshine Law was a big adjustment.  Even so, it is necessary and worthwhile.  Without it, I never would have gotten the information I needed to expose the huge wastewater funding disparity.  A little background on public records:

  • In Florida, public records are to be produced upon request.
  • You do not need to be a voter or a taxpayer to make a public records request.  If Joe Blow from Kokomo asks for a record, the public entity is required to comply.  Joe does not have to provide a reason for his request.  Joe, in fact, may remain anonymous if he so chooses.
  • There are certain, very specific exclusions to the the public records law, but most information is legally required to be made public.
  • There are rules regarding how much a public entity can charge for a public records request.  These rules are meant to prevent public entities from suppressing information by charging excessive fees.

I was researching a post about what financial relief for Key Largo citizens might look like.  Nothing controversial, right?  This is a happy thing.  This is a good thing.  This is something people want to know about.

I saw that there was a mention of financial relief in a write-up of the District’s 2015-16 budget.  Exciting, right?  A lot of people have been working toward this for years, and finally it might be happening!

So I sent this email asking for more information.  I had no intention of publishing this email or the response.  At this point, it was all about research and information gathering.  I was planning on maybe writing a little post with a table in it – before financial relief versus after financial relief.  Of course, the bigger the difference between the two the better, but any amount is a good start.

We all know that in order to provide much needed financial relief to the ratepayers, it is necessary to pay down debt. I looked over the budget and saw that the District plans to use $3.3 million in excess cash to reduce debt this fiscal year (FY 2015-16).

That’s fantastic and a good use of resources.

However, I also saw in the budget summary that the District spent $5 million last year on the sludge handling system and the grinder pump project. Those two projects were part of the agreement with FDEP for the $17 million. That means you could request reimbursement for $5 million from the state.

Then you’d have an additional $5 million available immediately to use for the benefit of the ratepayers. We all know the time value of money makes a big difference to them. You would still have $12 million to trade with the county.

It seems to me that would maximize the benefit to the ratepayers. I’m curious as to why this was not considered.

Just so you’re aware, I do plan on writing a blog post about this. Please keep that in mind if and/or when you respond.

The first part of the response from General Manager, Paul Christian explained exactly why the District was taking this approach.  It generated a few follow-up questions in my mind but overall it made sense.  Here’s a link to the rational part.

Unfortunately, that rational bit was followed by this:

It’s always easy to sit 1600 miles away and “Monday-Morning quarterback” these things nearly a year after the fact. Ultimately, I believe that most of those who are still here in Monroe County and have an actual vested interest in seeing real fiscal impact to the ratepayers of the District look at the County swap as a great deal. Perhaps Margaret should consider that and spend more time looking for a job and less time repairing her wounded ego over not being able to accomplish this deal in the first place. In my humble opinion, her e-mail is more of the later.

There’s a lot wrong with this part of the response.

  • It is obviously very inappropriate for a chief executive of a public entity to respond to questions from a ratepayer in such a needlessly insulting way.
  • My email was not nasty or rude.  It makes me wonder why I got such a defensive response.  It suggests a lack of confidence in the plan for financial relief, and that worries me.  The county is already making noises about withdrawing from the swap agreement.  Is there more to that than has been made public?
  • I said in my initial email that I might quote the response on my blog.  This was no “gotcha” situation.  This response speaks to a lack of good judgement when it comes to representing the District to the public.

It gets worse.  A few days before this incident, I submitted a public records request.  I wanted to make sure I had my facts straight.

Hello;

I took a look at the FY 2015-16 budget published on the District’s website, and I would like a bit more information. This information should be easily attainable as it would have been needed to prepare the budget.

Regarding wastewater service revenues from Islamorada.

How much flow was received from Islamorada last fiscal year (2014-15)?
How much is expected this year (2015-16)?
How was the $806,310 in wastewater service revenues from Islamorada derived?

Regarding capital projects.

What is the estimated total cost of each of the projects listed below?
How much has been spent on each through the end of FY2014-15?

Thanks in advance and have a great day.

In response, I got an invoice for $46.15.  As I mentioned above, this is information that would have been used to prepare the budget.  It should be readily available.  This was a very benign request.  There’s nothing controversial about it.  There’s nothing difficult about it.  There shouldn’t be anything here that would incriminate or embarrass the District.

I responded to the invoice by asking how the $46.15 figure was calculated.  I also included an excerpt from a press guide prepared by the Florida Bar, a link to a newspaper article about a Florida police department that was sued for charging excessive fees, and an Attorney General’s opinion on the matter.

I do not want to write about inappropriate handling of public information requests.  I do not want to write about a public official’s poorly-timed temper tantrum.  I want to write about financial relief, and I will try to do that with the information I’ve been able to obtain.  It’s a very important subject.  But why the secrecy?  Why the hostility?  Is there something to hide?  What’s really going on here?

This is the Streisand effect in action.  Attempting to suppress the information with insults and excessive fees doesn’t make the questions go away.  It only makes it seem as though there is more to the story.

Is there?

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