With a few simple mouse clicks you can renew your driver’s license, look up the deed to your house — even check the latest health-inspection report at your favorite restaurant.
Getting access to public records in this digital age is easier, cheaper and faster than ever, right?
“What it’s become is more difficult, more expensive and more time-consuming,” says Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation.
Politicians in Florida, a state historically known for having one of the most expansive public-records laws in the country, are making a joke of that law and your constitutional right to information.
It starts at the top.
Gov. Rick Scott has made a mockery of transparency since he was first elected in 2010 when he conveniently lost records related to his transition team that should have been made public.
It’s been downhill from there.
A recent story in the Miami Herald chronicled the sad erosion of public information access under Scott, who the story noted was the first governor to hide his travel records and who erased events from his calendars before making his schedule public.
Scott, newly inaugurated for a second term, issued an about-face this week saying that his office would finally follow the law and require state employees to turn over public records on private cellphones and other devices.
The governor’s administration had fought a lawsuit seeking those records, arguing that it wasn’t responsible for maintaining them.
All of this isn’t just a problem for nosy reporters and columnists.
It’s everybody’s problem.
Local governments have been emboldened by Scott aiming his middle finger at Florida’s “Government in the Sunshine” laws.
“I see a marked change,” Petersen said. “We’re seeing fees go up. We saw one agency wanted $50 just to tell someone how much it was going to cost to get public records.”
It took a woman, her dog and her persistent attorney four years before the Fifth District Court of Appeal slapped Orange County down for dragging its feet on turning over records related to a complaint about her dog.
Activist group Organize Now, which pushed for paid sick time, successfully won reforms in Orange County that led to text-tracking software on the cellphones of public officials.
The change was made in response to some county commissioners deleting or losing texts to or from lobbyists during a public meeting. The same group also won a lawsuit that sought to make public the IP address of computers accessing county files.
Petersen says governments that don’t properly maintain digital records are a common obstacle to information across the state.
“There’s commercially available redaction software they aren’t using and management systems they aren’t using,” she said. “There’s shoddy management, so we have to pay the price for that.”
This is compounded by lawmakers’ favorite hobby: chipping away at the “Sunshine” laws.
Already this year bills are filed to make secret the search process for new university presidents and to keep confidential email addresses provided to tax collectors.
If the Legislature goes along with the logic in these bills — that universities can’t attract the best talent because the searches are public, and that public email addresses subject people to identity theft — then we’re headed for a very dark future.
Why stop at university presidents? Maybe we aren’t getting the best city or county managers, either. Maybe those searches should be shielded from public view, too.
Never mind that if university searches last year had been secret then no one would have known what a debacle Florida State University’s search had become.
It’s not hard to imagine the fallout if lawmakers opt for secrecy over transparency.
Digital records really should make open information easier than ever.
Florida politicians just need to stop making it so hard.