It was disappointing, to say the least, to learn last week that Gov. Rick Scott, or his staff, had not been completely forthcoming about Scott’s usage of private email accounts to discuss public business. The troubling episode, as laid out by The Associated Press, reeks of political opportunism and offers another reminder of the importance of Florida’s constitutional guarantees of open government — something that, regrettably, hits too close to home, as we’ll discuss in a moment.
To recap, Tallahassee lawyer Steven Andrews, a Republican and unabashed critic of the governor, is involved in a long-standing legal dispute with the state. Along the way he believed he had uncovered that Scott was utilizing private emails to engage in public policy discussions — contrary to Scott’s claims that his private email accounts were for his family only. The AP sought to view the records on its own and requested them in August. Initially, Scott’s office said no such records existed.
Then, almost magically, three weeks after the governor survived a hotly contested election against Democrat Charlie Crist, some records were found and released. Scott’s spokesman then acknowledged that the governor had utilized a private email system for public issues, including entertaining a request by his former chief of staff to veto the legislation that created Florida Polytechnic University in Polk County.
Florida law allows public officials to use private email accounts. But, the moment they do so to discuss public business, the exchanges become public records. With current technology, it should not have taken three months for Scott’s staff to retrieve the emails. Thus, it appears the governor was running out the clock on the election. Sadly, as Andrews had told the AP back in August, “They don’t give you anything until you catch them.”
Which brings us to the Lakeland City Commission. At a commission session Monday, the board discussed a recent $150,000 settlement that ended a four-year battle with local open-government activist Joel Chandler over how much the city Police Department charged for its records. That came atop $225,000 the city paid last year in a failed, and misguided, effort to maintain the secrecy of a damaging grand jury report detailing the wretched goings on within the scandal-ridden department.
On Monday, Commissioner Edie Yates took a shot at Chandler — and by extension others who want to ensure their government operates aboveboard. “I don’t mind providing public records for people who have a legitimate reason to request them, but I do have concerns for people who do it only for a gotcha,” Yates said. “That’s a cost to government and society as a whole.”
Yates likened those such as Chandler, and presumably Steven Andrews, as “little lynch mobs out there trying to lynch every city and county.” “They are just trying to prove a point,” Yates added.
Well, yes, commissioner, they are. They are trying to prove government officials are not abiding by the laws they have sworn to uphold.
Yates’ thinking, for a public official, is scary when considering the potential outcome. First, she suggests that the government would decide what constitutes a “legitimate” reason for releasing its own records. Secondly, just imagine what the cost to society might be if government officials alone were empowered to determine which records they would make public.
We remind Yates, Gov. Scott and any other pol or staffer out there that the right of Florida citizens to inspect, copy and obtain government documents is enshrined in the state Constitution. State statutes — Chapter 119 — phrase such protection so elegantly: “It is the policy of this state that all state, county, and municipal records are open for personal inspection and copying by any person. Providing access to public records is a duty of each agency.”
We, however, prefer to emphasize that point with the blunt language of the court system. “Even though a public agency may believe that a person or group are fanatics, harassers, or are extremely annoying, the public records are available to all of the citizens of the State of Florida,” a judge from the 19th Circuit wrote in December 1991 in a case involving the city of Stuart. A judge in Highlands County court added in May 1996, “As long as the citizens of this state desire and insist upon ‘open government’ and liberal public records disclosure, as a cost of that freedom public officials have to put up with demanding citizens even when they are obnoxious as long as they violate no laws.”
The worrisome and improper attitude some officials harbor toward Florida’s Sunshine laws needs to disappear.