For a while, it must’ve seemed easy. SB 1648 and HB 1151, companion bills in the Senate and House, were written to improve Floridians’ access to public records and public meetings. They were zipping toward passage when the League of Cities and chambers of commerce started raising questions. Negotiations ensued. Changes were made.
Now, it appears, the bills are stalled.
“Generally, when you have those on opposite sides of a bill coming to agreement on compromise language, the gates are lifted and the legislation starts moving,” said Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation. “I don’t have a clue what — or who — is blocking passage …”
What’s being blocked is legislation which would stipulate that requests for public records don’t have to be made in writing (unless a statute specifically demands it, and unless the holder of the records can cite the statute).
It would stipulate that if providing such records will require “extensive clerical or supervisory assistance,” the cost charged can be no greater than the hourly rate (less benefits) of the lowest-paid person who can perform the chore.
It would require that contractors who do work for public agencies comply with the public records law, too.
It would set ground rules for attorney fees and court costs arising from litigation over the public records law.
It would require that all agency employees who deal with public-record requests undergo training in public records law.
That last requirement is especially important. Anyone who has tried to examine public records at a city hall, a courthouse, an agency headquarters or the state Capitol can tell stories about bureaucrats who stonewall, ignore the law, shrug off the rules and try to overcharge for the simplest tasks. A little education is overdue.
“My concern is this,” Ms. Petersen said. “If this good bill doesn’t pass this year, it will be another 20 years before we see any attempt to improve our open-government laws.”
It shouldn’t take 20 more years to widen the public’s access to Florida’s policy-makers. It shouldn’t take even 20 more minutes. Lawmakers ought to approve this legislation — and keep the Sunshine State out of the shadows.