WUFT NEWS by Andrew Briz, Cailtin Ostroff, Ethan Bauer, Alexa Lorenzo, Gabrielle Calise, Ryan Serpico
April 14, 2018
Would you want to know if your local school has a mold problem? Or if your new neighbor from the other side of Florida has a criminal record? Or if your city’s police department is following protocol during traffic stops?
In Florida, you can answer all those questions thanks to chapter 119 of the Florida Statutes, officially known as the Florida Public Records Act, which allows anyone to inspect any documents produced by any government office in the state at a reasonable cost. But the law in practice isn’t as simple as it sounds.
WUFT News reported on this issue last year in Sunshine Lost, an investigation into compliance with the state’s public records law in all 20 Florida district state attorney’s offices. Among the findings were a lack of proper record keeping, inconsistent pricing and missing points of contact for people trying to make requests. With help from Florida’s First Amendment Foundation, the National Freedom of Information Coalition and the Knight Foundation, WUFT News expanded that reporting this year to include constitutional offices — tax collectors, sheriff’s offices, etc. — in nine counties across Florida, plus six state agencies.
We’ve got this great law, but no means to enforce it other than through the courts.
While Florida is revered for its open public records laws, the state does not have an effective enforcement mechanism. If your public records request about your daughter’s moldy school isn’t being addressed quickly, there’s nobody to complain to. The agencies are in charge of policing themselves.
Your only option would be to sue the agency.
“We’re really stuck,” said Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation. “We’ve got this great law, but no means to enforce it other than through the courts.”
This isn’t just on a case-by-case basis either. Aside from having no official appeals process, the state also doesn’t exercise any oversight of its agencies. That means no one is keeping track of what agencies are charging for completing requests.
WUFT’s goal with this project was to perform that task in place of the state – to audit a sampling of agencies to see how Florida’s public records laws perform when left in the dark.
“The purpose is to get a snapshot of what’s going on around the state,” Petersen said. “We can then provide it for our lawmakers in the hopes that they will see the problems.” In the hopes, Petersen added, that new legislation will result.
WUFT News chose nine counties and six state agencies for the audit based on geographic and population diversity. Requests were sent to all county constitutional officers in nine Florida counties as well as the city clerk for the county seat. County constitutional officers include the state attorney; sheriff; clerk of court; tax collector; property appraiser; supervisor of elections; public defender; and school superintendent. Six state agencies — the Executive Office of the Governor, the Attorney General, the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the Department of Financial Services, the Department of Juvenile Justice and the Department of Veterans Affairs — also received the same public record requests.