By Pamela Marsh and Virginia Hamrick, First Amendment Foundation
Daytona Beach News-Journal
Florida lawmakers are at it again this year. Your legislators want to make even more difficult to access important government information.
While exempting public records and meetings is nothing new, the legislation is especially troubling after the year we have been through. Accurate information on COVID-19 that was critical to making informed decisions — like the number and location of cases and variants, contact tracing data, and vaccine distribution – was withheld by state agencies, unless you were able to bring a lawsuit. We owe a debt of gratitude to our Florida newspapers and media organizations for bringing those suits to enforce open government laws.
“So here we are, not out of the COVID woods yet, and our legislators are trying to hide more information. We are highlighting five of the worst bills aiming to reduce your right to know what your government is up to,” explained Executive Director Pamela C. Marsh. “Please ask yourself, who wants this information hidden? Who benefits from less oversight? The bills selected will protect elected officials, utility companies, and private contractors at the expense of your right to know.”
Compliance and conflicts
HB 1207 and SB 1488 exempt the home addresses and other personal information of current members of the state Senate, House, and Cabinet officers. The bills also hide the names and places of employment of legislators’ and Cabinet officers’ spouses and children. As a result, the public will have no way to know whether legislators live in the district they are elected to represent. Plus, there will be no way to determine whether a conflict of interest exists between officials and a spouse or child who may personally, professionally, or financially benefit by that official’s vote.
Obscuring utility rate hikes
HB 1311 and SB 7066 allow the Public Service Commission to close meetings that cannot be conducted without revealing confidential business information. Closing meetings will make it impossible for the public to know whether the Commission is making fair decisions. Utilities argue that they cannot “compete” in the market if their confidential business information is discussed in a hearing. That is nonsense. Most utilities do not compete. They are regulated monopolies in Florida. Besides, it is simply human nature — powerful individuals behave better when they know the public is watching.
It’s a (trade) secret
Ahead of session, First Amendment Foundation, of which Historic City News is a member, advocated for legislation that would repeal existing trade secret exemptions and create one clear, uniform definition and process to exempt true trade secrets. There are currently dozens of laws that address the protection of trade secrets. This menagerie of exemptions causes nothing but confusion and expense. However, the version moving through the Legislature this session, HB 1055, does not repeal existing exemptions and uses the same definition of trade secret already in law. This means when your government contracts with a private contractor the tax dollars paid by the government to the private third-party contractor could be protected as “trade secret”. You have a right to know how your tax dollars are being spent.
College presidential searches
HB 997 and SB 220 would hide all identifying information of any applicant for president of a state university or Florida College System institution. And it would exempt any portion of a meeting discussing or vetting those applicants.
Twenty-one days before the final interview of the “final group” of candidate(s), their application information would be disclosed. However, the bill contains no minimum number for the final group of applicants. In other states with such laws, a “final group” of one has been the rule, not the exception.
Florida lawmakers have already shot this proposal down at least five times, and for good reason. Supporters of the exemption claim the best candidates for the job will not apply “in the sunshine”. Do you believe for one minute that FSU President John Thrasher would NOT have lobbied for his job unless the legislature, of which he was a senator, agreed to make his application a secret?
What an insult to the excellent college and university leadership that has brought Florida to the top of the national charts! There is no evidence to suggest secrecy will increase the number of applicants. Nor is there any evidence that qualified applicants will face retaliation if they apply to another school. In fact, research shows that secrecy leads to the appointment of insider, political candidates. That is not what Florida needs.
Shutting out voters
HB 155 and SB 1492 would block the public from obtaining certain information obtained during voter registration. However, the bill specifically permits disclosure to a political party or political party official, a candidate who has filed qualification papers, an elected official, or a registered political committee.
The bill allows use of voter registration information “for political purpose only”. As a result, because the exemption would not apply to campaigns, PACs, or political parties, this bill would do nothing to reduce political solicitation calls, texts, or emails. Bottom line, what is the point?
If we have learned anything this past year, we have learned that information is power. We cannot sit passively by while the powerful find new ways to hide information about their decisions and conduct.
Pamela C. Marsh is executive director and Virginia Hamrick is staff attorney with Florida’s First Amendment Foundation.