Politicians in Tallahassee bickered about almost everything this year.
Except when it comes to your constitutional right to access public information.
On that, they agree you should have less access.
Lawmakers did a lot of damage to public records this year.
They found 13 new ways to limit government transparency and renewed seven more exemptions to Florida’s Sunshine Law.
If there is one good thing to come from this year’s legislative meltdown, it’s that lawmakers gave up and went home before they could do any more damage.
“It’s the only thing this Legislature can agree on,” said Barbara Petersen of the First Amendment Foundation. “One of the last things the House did before it quit was pass an exemption.”
If House Speaker Steve Crisafulli had stuck around instead of stomping off to his room like a pouty teenager, the results would have been much worse.
Last year the Legislature passed a record number of new exemptions to public records.
This year they simply didn’t have time.
So, Mr. Speaker, don’t say I never thanked you for anything.
Though it’s probably not much consolation, considering the reckless manner in which Crisafulli and his cronies shut down public access to information.
Take, for example, police body cameras.
There’s wide agreement that body cameras are good for law enforcement agencies because they help reduce complaints and improve safety.
Orlando Police Chief John Mina said this week that a study on his officers’ body cams confirmed just that, and he plans to add 450 more of the devices to his department during the next four years.
What makes the cameras so effective is accountability — the idea that the actions of police officers and those that they are arresting will be on videotape for public scrutiny.
The Legislature passed a law that broadly exempts lots of those videos from public view: anything shot inside a private residence; at a health care or social services facility or in a place where a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy.
That’s a lot of video that’s suddenly no longer subject to public scrutiny.
And the House did it without any deliberation. The bill (SB248), which was filed in the Senate, was never considered by a single House committee. Not a single member of the House ordered an analysis of the bill, which is standard protocol.
But it was passed almost unanimously by a vote of 112-2.
“The House had to waive its rules to pass that bill,” Petersen said.
Also passed were broad exemptions for home addresses, telephone numbers and photographs of current or former members of the military who served after Sept. 11, 2001.
This bill (HB 185) creates a bureaucratic nightmare for property appraisers, tax collectors, public utilities and any other agency that might keep this information. The bill fails to address how a person’s military service should be confirmed, opening up the door for it to be exploited.
“The burden theexemption will place on records custodians will be extreme, requiring them to track thousands (if not tens of thousands) of requests for confidentiality,” wrote Petersen in a letter to Gov. Rick Scott asking him to veto the bill. “The cost of access to public records will increase exponentially —redaction costs are passed along to the requester — as will time delays in accessing commonly requested public records.”
In addition to the administrative headache, there’s no good reason for exempting this information.
The purported motive is safety. Lawmakers are upset about a list of military personnel created by a terrorist group.
As Petersen points out, that list was created not through a public records request, but through information posted on the Internet by the U.S. military.
But almost anything suffices as an excuse in Tallahassee to shut down public information.
And the truly frightening thing is that lawmakers are getting away with it. Sunshine’s best hope appears to lie with the Legislature’s inability to function.
Original article here.