There is a ray of hope for stronger public records laws in Florida as we recognize Sunshine Week, an annual event that calls attention to the importance of open government and often rings the alarm bell to warn of attempts to keep public records secret. The Senate will consider a bill this week that would make a series of positive changes to ensure that public records are available and affordable. Credit Senate President Don Gaetz for moving forward with reforms reinforcing the spirit of the state's long tradition of openness.
The legislation, SB 1648, would broaden the public records law to require foundations or associations that accept dues from public agencies to open their financial and membership records that are related to the public agency or are generally available to members. That would make it easier for taxpayers to better understand the relationship between government and private groups that may be acting on its behalf or carrying out government functions. Too often, it is far too difficult for taxpayers to trace how their money flows from government to private groups and hold those groups accountable for work they perform that they claim is in the public's interest.
Private contractors that have contracts to perform government functions already are required to make records relating to that work public, but they can be uncooperative about producing them. The legislation would require contractors to notify the public agency before denying a public records request or if the contractor is about the be sued for failure to produce public records. That should put some teeth into existing law.
Other provisions of the bill would clarify that public records requests generally do not have to be made in writing and spell out the maximum charges for copies. But the greatest impact of the legislation could be a new requirement that all public employees who deal with public records requests undergo training about the public records law. Too often, local and state government workers deny access to public records because they are uninformed about the law, not because they are intentionally trying to hide public documents.
The news is not all good from Tallahassee, as lawmakers annually chip away at public records under the guise of security or privacy concerns. One bad proposal sponsored by Sen. Jack Latvala and Rep. Ed Hooper, both Clearwater Republicans, would exempt from the public record email addresses collected by county tax collectors in order to send tax notices. There is no need for the exemption created by these bills, SB 538 and HB 421, or another bill, SB 1514, that would create an exemption for voters' email addresses in an era when email addresses are as readily available as telephone numbers. Another bad bill, HB 481 by Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, would keep secret the dates of birth listed on voter registration lists. That would undercut the ability of the news media and other outside groups to spot voter fraud.
Gov. Rick Scott, who once offered great promise in promoting open government, has been a disappointment. He pledged to make easily available on the Internet his emails and those of his staff, but Sunburst has been a bust because of time delays and his administration's efforts to avoid email. A promising effort by the Senate to make public more state financial records in a searchable form collapsed when lawmakers handed off the task to the governor, who refused to accept it. Many of the governor's agencies only grudgingly respond to requests for public records and often require those requests to be made in writing — which is not a requirement of state law. The public also has little or no information about where the governor flies on his private jet or whom he visits. Unlike his recent predecessors, Scott hides behind security concerns and keeps much of his schedule secret.
This Sunshine Week, the Senate's proposed improvements to the public records law are encouraging. But as always, there are other attempts to keep Floridians in the dark that lawmakers should reject.