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Monday, November 05, 2007

Appraiser Kept Official's Information Under Wraps
By Michael Stewart

Escambia County Property Appraiser Chris Jones wrongly withheld public information about commercial property ownership by some public officials but plans to correct the problem.

A Florida law instructs some government agencies not to release certain officials' home addresses, telephone numbers, Social Security numbers and photographs.

The law is designed to protect judges, law officers and other public employees who could be targets of retribution from irate citizens.

But Jones has not only withheld home addresses and phone numbers of those officials. If the officials request it, he also has used the statute to conceal commercial property that they own.

However, after a News Journal query, Jones said he spoke with Florida Department of Revenue officials who told him the ownership of commercial property could not be withheld.

"It will eventually be put online," he said.

The issue surfaced when the News Journal tried to find out who owns a vacant commercial building at the corner of East Gonzalez Street and North Davis Highway. Neighbors were complaining that a fence constructed around the building was an eyesore.

Normally, ownership information would be available on the Escambia County property appraiser's Web site.

However, an online map on the property appraiser's Web site gives no owner's name, no identifying parcel number or even a street address for the property in question.

The News Journal eventually confirmed through a search of the Lexis-Nexis database that Escambia County Judge David Ackerman owns the property. Later, the judge also confirmed the property belonged to him.

When Jones was first asked who owns the property, he declined to say.

"Until they tell me in Tallahassee I have to release it, I'm not going to do it," he said.

Jones acknowledged the law did not instruct him to withhold judges' and law officers' commercial property. But, he said, if those officials requested it, he'd "always done it that way" to err on the side of caution.

"It's never come up before," he said.

After talking with the Department of Revenue officials, Jones acknowledged Ackerman's ownership of the property in question. Then, after a public records request from the newspaper, he released the addresses and other information on six other properties that the judge owns.

Ackerman said he could not recall whether he submitted a request to the property appraiser to keep his commercial holdings confidential.

When told that Jones had learned commercial holdings could not be kept private, Ackerman said: "That makes perfect sense to me."

Adria Harper, director of the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee, said Jones had misinterpreted the law.

"If it is not a residence, the information should be available just as everyone else's information is available," she said. "That statute is specifically intended to protect residences of public officials."

The Pensacola News Journal
Copyright 2007 The Pensacola News Journal