Emails to and from government officials concerning government business are public records.
However, in Summerfield, a request for those records, submitted in June for emails, has become the center of a controversy – just as this type of request has in the past.
Those seeking to get the information say that the town is dragging its feet and may never meet the request.
Several Summerfield town officials, in recent years, have said that they feel that one group of town residents overburden town officials with sweeping records requests.
The latest conflict comes because the Town of Summerfield has yet to grant a request made on June 16. At that time, Don Wendelken, under the name of his local newspaper – Summerfield Scoop – requested email communications between the town manager, the Town Council and the town attorney from June 8 to June 12.
Wendelken’s request asked for the emails pertaining to the town’s Unified Development Ordinance and a proposed text amendment to that ordinance.
Wendelken told the Rhino Times that it’s now August and he still hasn’t seen the information. By state law, local governments are supposed to provide public records as soon as possible. Wendelken said he wants the records in order to learn more about a proposed residential project by Summerfield farmer and developer David Couch.
Wendelken said that, usually, the only way he can get info from town officials is by prying it from them through threats of legal action.
Recently, Wendelken wrote again to Summerfield Town Manager Scott Whitaker and town councilmembers.
“Sadly, Scott, you seem to be ignoring my request,” Wendelken wrote. “Do we need to go through mediation again? It seems like lawsuits are the only way to get your attention? You create problems by waiting and saying you are too busy taking care of other important town business. Can a responsible council member stand up to Scott and remind him he works for you and the citizens, please.”
Wendelken’s email also said that he knows it takes a little time to review emails but he added, “Do your job, Scott!”
This has been a prominent theme in the past as well. Citizens in Summerfield making public records request for records experiencing long delays or being asked to pay hundreds of dollars for staff time before a public record is provided.
In the past, Summerfield Mayor BJ Barnes has said – about similar instances – that the town has a small staff but that staff constantly gets inundated with public records requests. He said staff often has to work overtime to fill the massive requests.
One thing that often slows down a public records request is the need for a government attorney to go through and redact any personnel issue information or other information that is legitimately protected by the state’s laws.
Wendelken said his request only covered specific emails for a short period of time and it’s been three months since he made it. He said town officials may have ulterior motives for not releasing the information to the public.