Florida’s Government in the Sunshine Law is getting a little cloudy from three dozen bills that, if passed, would create exceptions ranging from not disclosing finalists for top state university and college jobs to exempting addresses and other information on all former and active members of the military.
For average citizens, it means less information on a wide range of issues to which they have had access for at least five decades. That also means less opportunity to have a say in issues or decisions being made that affect them.
Florida’s Government in the Sunshine Law — the foundation for later evolution in access to public records, various meetings and prohibitions against secret meetings — was passed by the Florida Legislature in 1967.
Florida’s first Public Records Law was passed in 1909.
In 1992, the Constitution of the State of Florida was amended to provide a guarantee that public records would remain open for residents.
The laws became a landmark for other states and Lakeland’s Lawton Chiles, as U.S. senator, introduced a bill at the federal level for open government.
Supporters say the laws are being chipped away, slowly but surely.
Former state Sen. Paula Dockery, who served on the Open Government Commission, now a syndicated columnist, and a longtime defender of the public records laws when she was in the Legislature, said she is not surprised.
“While I knew the Legislature was chipping away at the Sunshine Law, I was surprised to learn that the average is 25 attempted exemptions per year,” she said.
“With over 1,100 total exemptions, it’s difficult to credit the Legislature with having any respect for our Sunshine Law, which they are rendering nearly moot.”
More than three dozen exemptions to the Sunshine Law have been filed in the 2015 Legislature, said Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation.
“Last year, the Legislature passed 22 exemptions to public records. That’s 12 percent of all the bills that were approved by the 2014 Legislature,” she said.
Some are wide ranging and are only responses to mistakes made by government itself, she said.
For instance, House Bill 185 exempts the addresses of all current and former members of the military, likely to be in the hundreds of thousands, if passed.
The fear started when the terror group ISIS revealed the names and addresses of 100 members of the military and asked their adherents to kill them.
“The 100 names were released by the military by mistake. How do you think they got those names? Did ISIS make a public records request? No, it’s all over the Internet because the military messed up,” Petersen said.
“They need to ensure that doesn’t happen again. But to withhold information on all military and veterans in the state? My dad is 93 years old and fought in World War II. What danger can that be?”
A similar, across-the-board exception, was filed after the Clearwater Police Department failed to redact information on a police officer and his identity was stolen. Instead of Clearwater making the corrections, Petersen said, a bill was filed exempting all previous employment, addresses and the like from public record, whether it is law enforcement related or not.
Petersen said she agrees with the current law to keep law enforcement officers’ addresses secret and it has been on the books for many years. But to also exempt non-law enforcement information from years ago is ridiculous, she said.
Rep. Neil Combee, R-Polk City, has filed HB 223, which would exempt from public records laws the names of applicants for top administrative posts in Florida’s university or state college systems. The bill must now go before the before going to the full House to be voted on.
The Senate bill (SB 182) by Sen. Alan Hayes, R-Umatilla, and Combee’s legislation would remove any personal identifying information about applicants for high administrative jobs in the state-supported education system and would allow closed-door interviews of the applicants.
Combee’s bill passed the Governmental Operations Committee on Tuesday.
Petersen said she was at that meeting.
“Forty-one people traveled to Tallahassee to speak against the bill,” Petersen said. “No one from the public spoke in favor.
“Yet it passed committee seven to four. I am seeing a lot of seven to four votes on public records exemption.”
Combee had said earlier when discussing his own bill that some exemptions are necessary to protect people’s jobs and safety.
“Most of the exceptions are about safety and security and not just for government employees. There are private citizens out there whose jobs may make them vulnerable,” he said.
“As for my bill, by keeping applicants’ names private during the selections, the hope and desire is to increase the pool of highly qualified candidates when they know their applications will not be on the front page.”
Original article here.