'The public deserves an answer': WPTV sues Riviera Beach to obtain text messages under Florida law

As part of the investigation into the controversial firing of Riviera Beach City Manager Jonathan Evans, Contact 5 pored over months of phone records of the three city council members who voted to fire him.

Repeated requests for text messages sent between the three council members and the police chief on their city-issued phones have gone unanswered, so WPTV has sued the city to obtain them.

Related: 'It's a red flag': Riviera Beach officials' phone records suggest orchestrated effort to oust Evans

“So, what we know now, thanks to the phone records, is that the reason they didn’t talk in public is because they talked a lot in private,” said First Amendment attorney Florence Snyder.

WPTV found calls between council members as well as calls to Police Chief Clarence Williams and Alex Freeman, who hoped to replace Williams, until Evans told him he wasn’t qualified and would not be interviewed.

WPTV found 99 text messages of interest, that by Florida law are public records.

RELATED: More Riviera Beach coverage

First Amendment attorney Martin Reeder said this story should concern people even if they don’t live in Riviera Beach.

“The public deserves an answer,” Reeder said. “We need to know whether their business is being done behind closed doors or not.”

WPTV is committed to shine light on what is happening inside local governments and with taxpayer money. Our ongoing investigation into Riviera Beach has exposed a pattern of irregular behavior by some city officials, including at least one secret meeting and extensive electronic communication outside of official meetings.

Of the 99 messages we requested, six were from Hubbard, 11 from Pardo, and 82 from Davis.

Pardo was the first to respond, giving us all 11 messages we requested.

On Sept. 14, six days before council fired the city manager, Freeman messaged Pardo: “Pastors Burrs, Parrish and a few others would like to schedule a meeting with you asap due to a pressing concern. They instructed me to contact you to schedule a meeting.”

Follow-up messages indicate Pardo met with the pastors and others on Sept. 19 at 4 p.m. at the Ambassador Center on Singer Island.

The next day she voted to fire Evans.

That matches with what Pardo emailed a resident on Oct. 5, saying she arrived at the decision to fire Evans based, in part, on a meeting with “well respected ministers from the churches in Riviera Beach”.

Hubbard gave us only two of the six messages we requested, not including the message she sent to Williams, but then gave us other messages we didn’t ask for.

Davis, 83 days after our request, still hasn’t provided any of the text messages.

“It sounds suspicious,” Reeder said. “You’d think that a public official, if these were conversations about fishing, would want to release the records to show his or her constituents that everything is above board. They’re being withheld, that causes me to be suspicious.”

Public officials are allowed to talk with one another outside of a public forum as long as they’re not talking about public business.

During the last 83 days, WPTV has pressed the city repeatedly for these public records. Our producer contacted the city about a dozen times and our attorney warned the city that even the delay of public records is unlawful.

But Davis refuses to respond.

Florida has very strong open records and open meetings laws, but Reeder said someone needs to hold public officials to those laws.

Reeder said media outlets don’t sue over public records as often as they used to 10 or 20 years ago, mostly because of financial restraints.

“As a result, public officials feel like they can get away with it, or no one is really looking, no one is really going to do anything about it,” Reeder said.

WPTV filed a lawsuit, demanding the messages be released immediately, so the public can get answers.

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