By Rick Stone
With two weeks to go in the lawmaking session, open government and ethics measures favored by watchdog groups are stalled in the Florida Legislature. There is particular concern about citizen access to public records.
The first worry is about the number of public record exemptions that are pending this year. One of those, for instance, would protect the email addresses that county governments user to mail out tax notices.
It may seem small and innocuous, but Barbara Petersen of the First Amendment Foundation says it’s one of a dozen that are pending this year.
“It will be a record number of new exemptions and push the total number of exemptions to both the public records law and the open meetings law close to 1,100”, said Petersen.
On the other hand, a bill to improve access to public records is not moving. It would make sure that nobody is forced to make a request for records in writing. And it would limit the fees that governments could charge for staff time and copying the records. Joel Chandler of the group Open Government Watch favors the bill and tells of once being charged $8,000 for some Polk County school board records.
“If they tell me that have to pay them $8,000 I can only imagine what they tell reporters and what they tell little old ladies”, said Chandler.
Chandler, Petersen and other spokesmen for open government groups such as Common Cause and Integrity Florida told reporters that there’s a continuing trend of frustrating access to public records. They said it’s a threat to public interest journalism and democracy.
Senators and representatives are taking their week-long Easter break. They’ll be back on Monday with just two weeks before adjournment to negotiate and pass the state budget.