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Jac Wilder VerSteeg: West Palm’s version of Wikileaks

Open government sustained a serious setback this month. For this, you can “thank” the city of West Palm Beach, along with West Palm Beach Mayor Jeri Muoio and spokesman Elliot Cohen.

As reported extensively by WPTV NewsChannel 5 and The Palm Beach Post, the city – in response to public records requests – posted information online that revealed the names of several undercover officers, police informants and people who are the subjects of continuing criminal investigations. The posts contained information about local and federal probes.

Edward Snowden and Wikileaks would be proud. Except in this case, the government isn’t the victim of a whistleblower. The government did this damage to itself.

How did it happen? Well, there’s one benign explanation and one not-so-benign explanation.

West Palm has had a series of shoot-out murders in its northern section. It turned out that surveillance cameras deployed in the high-crime area weren’t working properly. Reporters seeking information about the crimes and cameras filed public records requests. They were trying to find out, for one thing, who was responsible for the failed cameras.

Instead of checking the records and police emails for sensitive information, city spokesman Cohen blasted all of it onto the Web under the heading “Transparency.” The blowback has been embarrassing and vicious, with the police union correctly demanding Cohen’s head.

Mayor Muoio has claimed the original impulse was her idea. She said she earlier had floated the idea of adopting a policy in all cases of posting for all to see the names of those who requested public records and then the documents they requested.

Sounds like a good idea that furthers government openness, right?

But reporters suspect a not-so-benign motive. They think Muoio and Cohen were trying to undermine reporters working to publish scoops. Publishing the public records request would alert other members of the media; publishing the requested documents would eliminate the reporter’s head start on the competition. Further, even if the media organization had to pay a fee to generate the documents, everybody else would get those documents for free.

The “transparency” policy was a switch from the normal procedure, under which the reporter’s request was known primarily to city officials and the documents produced in response to the request were furnished only to the reporter and only after being vetted for sensitive information by the departments that generated the documents or emails. Cohen bypassed all that.

Compromising law enforcement clearly was the unintended consequence. But what were the intended consequences? Muoio and Cohen would have us believe that openness and transparency were the intended result of their actions. But it looks instead like their real intent was to undermine investigative reporting and take a shot at journalists who have been demanding answers.

While Muoio and Cohen, who so far has kept his job, are taking a great deal of heat, they – and other government officials who deplore Sunshine Laws – might benefit in the end. Governments across Florida can cite the West Palm fiasco as an excuse for dragging their feet on public records requests, claiming they need to check and double-check records before releasing them.

And you can be sure a few will latch onto the idea of publishing all public records requests – and the resulting documents – to destroy any competitive edge for news-gathering organizations and, therefore, any motivation for making the public records request in the first place.

Too many government officials look for an excuse to keep secrets. West Palm’s Mayor Muoio and spokesman Cohen have provided just such an excuse. West Palm has turned open government into a weapon against open government.

Jac Wilder VerSteeg is a columnist for The South Florida Sun Sentinel, former deputy editorial page editor for The Palm Beach Post and former editor of Context Florida. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

Editor’s note:

WPTV NewsChannel 5 published this update on the story Monday evening:

“Embattled West Palm Beach city spokesman Elliot Cohen is stepping down as public spokesman but will remain employed.

The announcement was made late Monday afternoon just one week after Cohen faced intense backlash after confidential police emails were posted on the city’s public website.

“A news release from the mayor’s office said, ‘Both Elliot and I agree the current media climate has affected his ability to fulfill that role, while it was not his responsibility to review or redact the information handed to him, media attention has nevertheless focused on him.’ “

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