Florida’s reputation as the sunniest place for government transparency could get cloudier if a host of bills make it to the finish line in the 2015 legislative session.
Over 40 exemptions have been proposed. And even early in the session, many already seem to have a chance of flying through.
This year, “it’s a longer list than usual, frankly. I try very hard to balance the good stuff with the bad stuff … but I can’t come up with any good stuff,” said Barbara Petersen, president of the Florida First Amendment Foundation.
Saturday marked the end of Sunshine Week, a nationwide celebration of government transparency. Florida is widely recognized as one of the best states in the country when it comes to public records laws, yet the last couple years have chipped away at that.
Last year, 12 percent of all bills passed had to do with limiting public records or transparency, Petersen said.
The First Amendment Foundation has chosen seven 2015 proposed bills that it strongly opposes.
Among them are bills that would make public only the finalist list of candidates for public university provost and president, and close the selection meetings to the public; exempt from public disclosure emails used by certain government offices; make private the recordings made by law enforcement officers’ “body cams”; and exempt the locations of artificial reefs from public record.
The reasons for filing the various bills are varied.
Exempting email addresses used for certain tax collector notices “sets a healthy precedent of the Legislature taking action to protect taxpayers from unwarranted intrusion into their private financial affairs,” state Rep. Dane Eagle, R-Cape Coral, wrote in a letter to the First Amendment Foundation. “Frankly, we do not have the luxury to wait for taxpayers to be expoloited when we have the opportunity to be proactive.”
Eagle sponsored the House version of that bill.
At a committee hearing Wednesday on the Senate’s version of the bill that would limit information on university job candidates, sponsor Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, said his impetus was to increase the number and quality of candidates for high-level positions.
“The whole purpose behind the bill is to widen the applicant pool so that we will have more and more and more people apply for these positions without fear of risking their current positions due to people finding out they’re applying for other jobs,” Hays said.
But some critics believe bills like these set a precedent that will leak into other areas of the public records law.
“I give them credit, they attempted to make it as narrow as possible,” Petersen said of the email bill. “And what they want to do is also very laudable … to stop mailing notifications and start emailing them. But we need better consumer education, we need to tell people how to protect themselves. And instead we close access to public records because that’s a cheap fix to the government but it doesn’t fix the problem.”
For transparency advocates, there appears to be some good news.
At the hearing Thursday for the college president bill, public testimony was only negative toward the bill, and members of the Rules Committee voted unanimously to postpone voting on the bill — a sign support could be waning.
But Petersen believes many of these bills will quickly and easily make it to Gov. Rick Scott’s desk, and mean a real overhaul of public records won’t happen.
“We’re not addressing correcting and reforming the public records law, we’re knee-jerk reacting,” she said. “There used to be a body in each chamber that we knew wanted to protect our open government laws. And now we have a person here or a person there.”
Some public records bills going through the Legislature.
SB 826 Providing an exemption from public records requirements for unsolicited proposals received by a responsible public entity for a specified period; providing an exemption from public meeting requirements for any portion of a meeting of a responsible public entity during which exempt proposals are discussed; providing for future legislative review and repeal of the exemptions; providing a statement of public necessity, etc. In government oversight and accountability committee.
HB 141 Provides exemption from public records requirements for certain identifying and location information of impaired practitioner consultants and their employees retained by agency and spouses and children of such consultants and employees. On Government Operations Subcommittee agenda.
HB 171 Provides exemption from public records requirements for information furnished to state, county, or municipal government agency for use in emergency information gathering system. In Government Operations Subcommittee.
HB 179 Provides public records exemption for email addresses obtained by tax collector for certain purposes; provides for future review and repeal of exemption; provides statement of public necessity. Approved by Finance & Tax Committee.
Original article here.