By Bill Cotterell
Sometimes, little things mean a lot in Florida’s vaunted sunshine statutes. A bill that unanimously cleared the Senate last week, and is set for a House subcommittee hearing Monday, would make it a little quicker and easier for Floridians to get a look at documents produced by state and local governments. The proposal was produced by the Senate Governmental Oversight and Productivity Committee at the behest of Senate President Don Gaetz, and it represents a change in attitude as much as a new set of ground rules for the public’s right to know.
“I’ve seen what happens when government brings all its resources to bear — hires lawyers, using taxpayers’ money, to obstruct or try to slow d own access to public records and access to government,” Gaetz, R-Niceville,said in an interview. As a school board member and Okaloosa County School superintendent before his 2006 election to the Senate, Gaetz said, “I saw too many examples of people in the school district hiding public records or trying to put up barriers and obstacles to people seeing them.” The bill (SB 1648) provides that, unless otherwise required by law, requests for public records don’t have to be in writing. It also clarifies the distinction between “exempt” information and “exempt and confidential” information.
Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation of Florida, said “exempt” information is what agencies don’t have to give out, but can release if they want to. Anything that is both exempt and confidential is legally secret,she said. This came up most prominently in the fatal shooting of a man in a Wesley Chapel movie theater, when a retired law-enforcement officer fired at a man in a dispute over texting. “The sheriff didn’t want to release his mug shot, even though he could have, simply because it was ‘exempt’ from public disclosure as the photo of a law-enforcement deputy,” Petersen said.
“This is a critically important distinction because the two terms are used interchangeably, but they mean different things.”
A companion bill by Rep. Dave Hood, R-Daytona Beach, (HB 1151) is on the House Governmental Operations Subcommittee on Monday. The Senate passed plan could be substituted for it, and sent to Gov. Rick Scott, or the House could send its own version to the Senate for compromise in the second half of the session. One potential sticking point is a requirement that professional associations that public officials join, using tax money to pay their dues, must make available information they share with members. Petersen said, for instance, the FAF weekly legislative bulletin or newsletters would have to be publicly available, if a county government joined her foundation.
“As elected officials use taxpayer money, if they’re going to join chambers of commerce or join advocacy groups of governing bodies, as for instance property appraisers would, then we want the groups being joined to be under the sunshine — but only as it relates to public officials,” said Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, who chairs the Senate government operations committee that sponsored the bill. “They don’t have to open all their books, only their books as it relates top public officials; now, if the public officials use their own personal money to join, then it’s a non-issue.” Another facet of the bill provides that, when agencies charge for fulfilling large and complex records requests, the requesting parties only have t o pay the hourly salary of the lowest-paid employee capable of gathering the data. That does not include the cost of the employee’s fringe benefits, under the proposed bill.
Petersen said that won’t save people a lot of money, but indicates a welcome spirit of openness. So does ending the requirement that public records requests be made in writing — except for some data, for which agencies need to keep a record of who sees it.
Filling out a request form may not be a big thing, but it reflects an attitude that public documents belong to the agency, not the public, she said. “It’s not a huge step forward, but it’s codifying a number of things; example, an agency could not make me put my request in writing,” she said. “We hear this all the time — a citizen will request to see public records and the agency will say, ‘Put your request in writing,’ and the citizen says, ‘I don’t have to do that,’ so the agency says, ‘Show me in the law where it says that.’ OK, it’s going to be in Chapter 119 now.”