67ºF

School bus contractor denies public record request

Manager admits mistake in rebuffing request for safety inspection report

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A controversial group that fights for public records and the right to photograph public facilities was rebuffed Tuesday when requesting records on school bus safety.

A member of Photography Is Not A Crime posted a video online, showing him being denied inspection reports from a Duval County school bus contractor. He was thrown off the property.

The records PINAC requested have since been released to News4Jax by the contractor, Student Transportation of America.

By law, each school bus must be inspected monthly, and the report on that inspection is public record. PINAC decided to review the inspection documents as part of school bus safety month.

But PINAC member Jeff Gray was asked to leave the contractor's Arlington office after he asked to photograph a copy of the safety inspection report for school bus 602.

He shot video of the encounter.

"Can you step outside please?" an employee asked. "I want you out of my building. You're on private property. I need you to step outside."

Gray agreed to step outside to speak with an employee, but once outside, he was told to leave and threatened with arrest.

Employee: "Go off our property. That's what I want you to do."

Gray: "Please don't touch me."

Employee: "I've done asked you several times to leave the property. I want you to leave the property.  Can you please get in your vehicle and leave? That's all I want you to do."

Gray said he went to the office, because he wanted access to the original documents for the safety inspections.

"I think it's very important when you do a public records request that you have access that the law allows to the original documents," Gray said. "I wanted to see the actual safety inspections. I did not want to see copies of it. I wanted to see if they were maintaining the buses properly."

News4Jax went to the office Friday and asked for the records. Other members of PINAC were also there. The contractor's manager complied without any problems.

She admitted they made a mistake in denying the records to Gray.

"To be honest with you, it is something we have never dealt with locally here, ever asking for public records, so we did not deal with it well," Chris Ingold said. "I am very honest about that. But we made some calls to our corporate office, and we talked about it. We talked to the district at length, and we are willing to comply. We have nothing to hide. We have an excellent maintenance record."

News4Jax attorney Ed Brik said the company did the right thing bringing in someone who understood what the company's obligations were.

"It sounds like they solved the problem," Birk said. "Under the contract (they have with the county), they have to abide by the public records law."

Any person can request the public records, including parents who want to know about their child's school bus.

There are three other school bus contractors in Duval County. News4Jax called all three. Only First Student had a response, saying the records would be available if requested.

The inspections are done by the city, which keeps the original records. The contractors only have copies on file.

Gray said he did not know that the original copies are maintained by the city. He said he thought the contractor would have the original.

PINAC said they requested similar documents in surrounding counties, and Baker County complied best. 


About the Author: