By Cathy Zollo
Local watchdog groups are increasingly taking over the roll once filled by reporters, whose numbers have shrunk by more than 20,000 due to newsroom cuts nationwide in recent years.
While it’s a positive development that these groups are taking the lead in policing local governments, the situation puts them at the mercy of public officials and staffers, who often fail to abide by Florida’s public records laws.
For this reason, Citizens Awareness Foundation is stepping into the public records fray to educate people about their right to public records and help them get the records they request.
Sometimes that help takes the form of phone calls, emails and in-person advocacy for these groups and individuals.
Sometimes it only takes being copied on the chain of emails between government officials and individuals or local watchdog groups.
That was the experience of John Bandorf, a former Volusia County Corrections Officer, who with his wife founded Volusia Exposed to uncover problems with jail inspections. The Bandorf’s aim is to inform the general public and the staff of the Volusia County Department of Public Protection of problems within VCDPP over the past 20 years.
Their work includes all divisions of VCDPP, including the county jail, fire services, beach safety, emergency medical services, medical examiner, emergency management and animal control.
The group focuses a great deal of attention on changes over recent years in the way jails in Florida are inspected. They say it’s a critical issue that affects the safety of inmates and corrections officers.
In a recent investigation into these inspections, Bandorf had requested records from the Florida Model Jail Standards committee to understand why the FMJS inspection process is failing to identify, correct and enforce minimum county jail safety and security standards within all 67 Florida counties.
Bandorf and other activists attended a FMJS committee meeting in Jacksonville and learned during the meeting of records they wanted to review. But officials stonewalled on the request, illegally requiring Bandorf to file a written request.
Volusia Exposed sought the assistance of CAFI, and he began copying Executive Director Joel Chandler in emails to these officials.
Bandorf said just including CAFI in the emails was a game changer.
“Now when we walk in there, they know we can pick up the phone and call Citizens Awareness Foundation, and they hand over the records,” Bandorf said. “Most times they don’t even charge us.”
If you or your group have experienced problems obtaining public records you are legally entitled to, please contact Citizens Awareness Foundation at Info@citizensawarenessfoundation.org.