It started with a letter sent to the city of Gulfport earlier this year.
The correspondence was not a lawsuit but a specific request for what is called “remediation” or compliance to have certain online documents on the municipal website be made more accessible based on the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), said David Mather, the city’s IT and Library director. Mather is also one of three full-time staff whose job responsibilities include updating the city’s website where hundreds of public records like meeting agendas and videos, memos, resolutions, architectural and sewage plans, and the current annual budget are usually posted.
The person who made the request wants a few years of budget and council meeting agendas in the Adobe Acrobat electronic file format known as PDF, said Mather.
“The problem with PDF compliance is that standards don’t say, ‘you must do this and you must do that,’” said Mather. Rather, “they say, ‘these are the best practices.’ So, there’s not really a standard.”
Lawyers from the city’s insurance carrier that track ADA case law that is evolving at the state level across the country said, “unless it is legally necessary, pull everything so we can best give you” advice, said Mather.
By early April, most of the content was taken down from the website and replaced with language that says, in part, the city “is committed to making our website and the pages, forms, and documents it contains accessible to all users, including those with disabilities.”
In Florida, the city budget and its amendments, the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report and the Waterfront Redevelopment District project information are legally required to be on the website, said Mather. Other items like agendas and videos are not.
At their April 16 regular meeting, city councilmembers gave direction to staff to work with Granicus, a current vendor, to ensure that future agendas, memorandums and minutes are ADA compliant so they can be made available on the website by no later than June.
“So, I’m sure it’s not going to be very popular with everyone, but in the meantime, we’ll just have to go back and pretend it’s 1975,” said Mayor Sam Henderson. “And, if you want a public record for a little bit, until we get this figured out in order to protect ourselves, you might have to do a public records request. All of that material will still be available, just not as readily available as it was before.
“By trying to do the right thing, by being transparent and putting things out there for people’s consumption, now, it has caused us a problem.”
What Does ‘Compliant’ Mean?
“There have always been ADA requirements for websites since the beginning. They were a lot easier to deal with in the past,” said Mather. “Until about 2010, the main thing was ‘Do you have blinking text?’ If the answer was, ‘No,’ then you passed.”
According to legal counsel interpreting current ADA and other legal benchmarks pertaining to accessibility, compliant PDF documents contain ordered text that is searchable and photographs, logos or decorative lines have labels or tags that describe what they look like if they don’t appear, said Mather.
Closed captioning at a high percentage accuracy rate rather than a minutes narrative is now required for both live meeting video recordings and archive footage.
In many cases and for the convenience of local residents, the traditional city website contained PDF documents from other primary sources like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) or Pinellas County especially on the topic of hurricanes.
“The good news is, we still have that stuff on there. It’s just been transitioned,” said Mather.
Now, Gulfport’s website links to other government agencies and the burden is on those different places to be ADA compliant, he said.
Similarly, supporting documents for city meetings, like architectural or sewage plans received from outside firms that contain items like complex drawings, will not be remediated or made ADA compliant by the city due to cost, said Mather. Materials such as these will no longer be made available on the city’s website.
Being Compliant Costs Money
Council has approved funding for the future creation of video closed captioning for live meeting recordings that include a required a transcriptionist at $140 an hour.
For pre-recorded videos, vendors who use YouTube’s closed captioning tool may be a cost-effective solution for remediation, said Mather.
Cost is the number one issue, said City Manager Jim O’Reilly. “We’re looking at videos dating back to 2013” for council and further back for other boards.
Start with council meetings, said O’Reilly. “Get the cost under control,” then move on to include the Planning and Zoning Board and Board of Adjustment.
At the April 16 council meeting, Mather reported that the first-year cost for making all agendas, memorandums and minutes compliant through templates provided by Granicus is $13,530 for implementation costs and fees. This is in addition to their current annual fee of $7,200.
“We already use Granicus for our meetings,” said Mather. If the city continues to use this vendor, “that would future proof us.”
Public Records by Request
According to the Investigative Reporters and Editors group, Florida’s Statue 119 is one of the most open state laws in the country for specifying which public records documents and data are available to anyone for the asking. The statute also contains a model for writing a formal public records request that can be submitted to any level of government.
In Gulfport, the city makes it easy to acquire local public records and in a format that is accommodating.
“Even before we took anything down [from the website], we had a little ADA notification saying, ‘if you have an issue with anything, please notify us immediately. If you have a personal request, please notify the city clerk,’” said Mather.
To acquire content, send a written public records request – a letter, to City Clerk and Records Custodian Leslie DeMuth via email to firstname.lastname@example.org or for traditional assistance, call 727-893-1012.
For people attending Gulfport City Council meetings or listening to videos where the ADA and compliance issues are discussed, phrases like “504 Standard” or “508 Standard” among other law references will be heard. For historical context that helps to decode some of the legal language, refer to the United States Department of Labor’s illustrated ADA timeline at dol.gov/featured/ada/timeline/alternative.