Human Services – Where Does All the Money Go?

crossed-fingers-363478__340Funny.  I was just starting to look into all the non-profits funded by the Human Services Advisory Board (HSAB), and this story popped up on KeysNet.  Unfortunately, two executives at the Rural Health Network (RHN), which is partially funded by the HSAB, have been arrested for allegedly diverting $63,000 of agency money into their own pockets.

The good news, according to the story, is that members of the board suspected something was up and reported their suspicions.  This looks to be an example of good oversight and of a board that is operating like it should.  (No, agency executives are not “god”.  Far from it.)  Good for the RHN board.  It sounds like they did their job.

There’s also a very interesting comment regarding the difficultly in securing public information from the RHN.  Does that ever sound familiar!  I’ve got so many posts about public information requests I’ll just pick one out of a hat.  Agencies don’t always have the information being requested, and they are not required by law to assemble it.  That’s one thing.  But dismissive, evasive, argumentative refusals in response to public records requests are extremely common in Monroe County.  Way too common.

In my opinion, the exceptions are the Property Appraiser and the Clerk’s office.  I only have one experience with Key West, but that experience was good.  You can actually submit and track your requests on the city’s website.  It’s very nice.  They turned my request around so fast, I didn’t even have to time to track it.

The governor’s office actually posts all responses to public requests online.  It’s imperfect but it works.  For example, it isn’t searchable.  So they probably wind up having to respond to multiple requests for the same documents.  Many, many requests have to do with the governor’s appointments.  Perhaps they should consider proactively posting those documents online because there is such a high demand for that information.

I’ve had the most difficulty with Monroe County and the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority (FKAA).  They’re generally reluctant to provide public information – at least to me.  They really haven’t set themselves up for the task the way that Key West has and the way the governor’s office has.  So such requests are generally treated by staff as an annoying, burdensome chore that takes away from their “real” duties.  Unfortunately for them, properly responding to public records requests is part of their “real” duties.

Here are my secrets for success when it comes to pulling public information out of the county and the FKAA:

  1. Have a blog.  Sounds funny, but I’ve had more success getting information now than I ever did as the General Manager of the Key Largo Wastewater Treatment District (District).  The county and the FKAA are somewhat sensitive to public opinion.
  2. Copy the lawyers.  Neither the county nor the FKAA has a designated office or staff member that handles public records requests.  The attorneys are generally more sensitive to the legal implications.  I’ve found I’m a lot more likely to get a response when the attorneys are aware that a request has been made.  Although, at times, they will also work to keep information under wraps.
  3. It helps to include in your request why you think the document exists.  Is it referenced in the meeting minutes?  Is it a report that is required by statute?  Is it required by contract?  That makes it difficult for them to deny that the document exists, but they’ll still try sometimes.
  4. No information is a form of information.  If a document doesn’t exist then an agency is not required to assemble it in order to comply with a public records request.  Very often, though, statements made by an entity imply that a document does exist.  For example, the county claimed in its Emergency Services Surtax (ESS) “white paper” that locals pay 100% of property taxes.  That’s quite an extraordinary claim, and I asked the county to substantiate it.  They never did, which forces one to conclude, based on evidence I gathered from other sources, that the claim is basically made-up.

Bottom line, the situation at RHN is sad, but the good news is the board members did their jobs.  Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to prevent such situations.  However, the board saw something wrong and reported their suspicions.  Good for them.

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