Public records and access to them continue to be limited, warned First Amendment Foundation President Barbara Petersen on Wednesday.
The Legislature enacted 22 new public record exemptions in 2014 and with more legislation looking to either broaden or limit public records again this year, “I’m hoping we don’t take anotherbig hit,” she said. The number of public records exemptions has steadily grown to more than 1,100 in the two decades since Petersen has headed the foundation. In 1985 there were 250. This year there are several proposed bills that look to limit what is available to the public.
The most troubling, Petersen said, is another attempt to create exemptions in identifying those who apply for university president, dean or provost positions. The issue came up last year as Florida State University and the University of Florida looked to find new presidents. Supporters have said allowing access to applications before a decision is made could limit the applicant pool’s quality.
“My concern is the justification would apply across the board to school superintendents, county administrators and city managers,” Petersen said, “and before too long I’m afraid we would see access to the personnel system shut down.”
The foundation is also looking at HB 91, sponsored by Rep. Ray Pilon of Sarasota, that would shield financial trade information from public disclosure.
“This is concerning for us,” Petersen said. “It is one that raises flags.”
In response to law firms filing “gotcha” public records requests against contractors working with public agencies in an attempt to collect attorney’s costs, Rep. Halsey Beshears, R-Monticello, and Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-of New Port Richey, have filed HB 163and SB 224. It would require contractors to maintain public records using the same standards as public agencies. In the case of civil court actions, a court could assess and award cost of enforcement against the public agency or contractor. That legislation would broaden access.
Meanwhile, the distribution of email addresses obtained by a tax collector for the purposes of sending electronic tax notices would be exempt under legislation, HB 179, filed by Rep. Dane Eagle, R Cape Coral. The bill was filed to deter identity theft, but “we’re concerned about the precedent it would set,” Petersen said.