By a 3-2 vote, the Gainesville City Council decided to appeal a decision by Superior Court Judge Bonnie Chessher Oliver that ordered the city to release to The Times the names of two city employees identified in an anonymous letter as victims of sexual harassment by the former city manager.
That they have done so can only make you wonder what it is they are so determined to keep hidden from the people they are elected to serve.
Some have questioned why The Times would go so far as to bring a lawsuit against the city for the information contained in the anonymous letter. The answer is simple: We cannot do our job of monitoring the actions of government without access to information that state law clearly says should be available for public inspection.
Without knowledge of the employees named in the letter, we cannot be sure the mayor's supposed investigation of the sexual harassment complaint was conducted in a thorough manner. After all, the council allowed then-city manager Bryan Shuler to resign under the pretense of doing so to care for ill parents, without ever making public the fact that he had been placed on leave as a result of the allegations.
Did the mayor and council try to sweep the incident under the rug to protect a popular city manager? Without talking to those named in the letter, we don't know.
We also don't know how those named in the letter have been treated by the city since the allegation was made. We have it on good authority that one of the employees left the city shortly after Shuler's resignation. Was she given special compensation to do so? Without the name, we don't know. Was the other employee promoted or given a raise as an incentive to stay quiet? Without the name, we don't know.
The truth is that a serious allegation was made against a top official and the mayor and council have stonewalled every effort to have their handling of the incident reviewed by the public. We believe the city violated state laws pertaining to public records, and in a strong ruling, Judge Oliver said exactly that. At issue isn't the two names but rather the city's handling of the entire incident, which can't be honestly evaluated without access to the names.
In their arrogance, the mayor and council have symbolically said to the people of Gainesville, "We did everything right. Take our word for it and don't ask questions."
Frankly, it is hard for us to take the word of those who put their own desires above the laws of the state and the rights of the people they serve.
City officials would have you believe they are standing on a moral high ground in protecting their employees. That is not the case. They are trying to avoid public scrutiny, just as they tried to allow Shuler to leave town without anyone knowing of the allegation against him.
The law on access to public records is not overly complicated. It says that, with few exceptions, those documents gathered by governmental bodies in doing the public's work should be available for public review. There is no exception in the law that allows a city to withhold information just because elected officials find it more comfortable to do so.
When discussions over access to the letter began months ago, the city's first position was that it was prohibited by law from releasing the names. Subsequently, the city said it would release the names, but only if its officials could control what The Times did with the information — a position that meant the city was willing to violate its own interpretation of the law in return for the power of censorship.
The Times said no. We do not believe news coverage should be filtered through a government agency. We do not know that we would ever print the names in question; in fact there is a good chance that they would never be made public by The Times at all. But we can't be sure of that because we don't know the full story, and the city is determined to keep it a secret.
For weeks, we tried to make the city understand it was violating state law before ever filing suit, but to no avail.
Now a judge has told the city the same thing, and elected officials don't care about that either. So it's on to another round in court, all because certain Gainesville leaders just don't want to release to the public information to which it is clearly entitled.
That's sad. And obstinate. And arrogant.
At this point we have to wonder about the legal advice paid for with city tax dollars. Is the city's legal counsel encouraging the fight? Or are elected officials pushing forward despite advice from their attorneys not to?
If the former is the case, then the lawyers need to go. If it's the latter, then those more interested in wasting tax money than following the law need to be out of office.
To their credit, two City Council members opposed appealing Judge Oliver's order, but even they bowed to pressure from within and refused to discuss publicly why they voted to do so. One said they had been instructed not to talk. Remember, to the city, silence is golden, and keeping the public in the dark is the preferred philosophy of this particular mayor and council.
The Times does not want to go back to court on this issue. In addition to paying for our own lawyers, we are city taxpayers as well, having put more than $42,000 into the city's treasury last year alone. Our tax money is being used against us to defend the illegal actions of a mayor and council who refuse to be held publicly accountable.
But go to court we will. Because we think elected officials are answerable to those they serve, and that they can't choose which laws to obey and which laws to ignore. At its most basic foundation, ours is a nation of laws, not of politicians who think they are above the law.