In the technological age of the 21st century, access to public records and information should be a fairly straightforward and efficient process. Unfortunately, in Florida, the methods of obtaining public information are anything but.
Last year, the Center for Public Integrity, a journalistic watchdog group, requested information from Florida’s 17th Judicial Circuit about “the procedures and policies surrounding foreclosure cases.”
According to the CPI, General Counsel Alexandra Rieman explained these costs by claiming that staff members would have to sort through 149,000 emails, requiring 2,500 work hours at a rate of $43 or $45 per hour.
That rate did not include the additional 15-cent charge per page for any records ultimately provided by the 17th Judicial Circuit.
Unsurprisingly, the CPI refused to pay the open records fees, calling them “excessive.”
In another request made by the CPI on July 15 for different foreclosure records, court employees requested a $66,000 deposit just to begin working. In many cases, the fees Florida charges for access to public records are exorbitant and absurd.
The State Integrity Investigation, a project of the CPI and two other organizations, Global Integrity and Public Radio International, gave Florida a grade of D+ in the category of “Public Access to Information.”
Although Florida ranked 18th among the 50 states for overall corruption risk, of which “Public Access to Information” was just one part, that was largely a result of other states being even more dysfunctional than the Sunshine State.
Florida’s overall grade was a C-, compared to 25 states that received a D+ or worse. No state received a grade higher than New Jersey’s B+. Florida, a state that once prided itself on its transparency and open government laws, should not simply settle for being “less bad” in these areas.
According to Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, an open records advocacy group, Florida law “allows an agency to charge a reasonable fee for the ‘extensive’ use of agency resources.”
If the fees on public records being charged by Florida government are so excessive that even an open government foundation like the CPI refuses to pay them, it is clear there is a problem. If the cost of obtaining and sorting through public records is really as high as Florida government officials claim, then Florida must find more funds in the state budget to cover those costs. Better yet, the state should develop or utilize more advanced technology to lower costs by processing public records more efficiently.
All Floridians deserve the right to access state records at a truly reasonable cost. After all, what is the point of having “public” records if they aren’t readily available to the public?