Gov. Rick Scott's contempt for the rights of Floridians to obtain public records in a timely, affordable manner remains as strong as ever. He made clear in a meeting with dozens of the state's newspaper editors Friday that he has no intention of adjusting a policy that strains the legal requirements of the public records law and certainly violates its spirit. No governor in history has treated so carelessly Florida's treasured commitment to openness, and as a conservative Republican, Scott should be inviting greater checks on the power of government.
Scott's approach to public records requests to the Governor's Office includes unreasonable fees that are based on the time it takes to produce the records. The cost is exacerbated by his staff's insistence that only high-paid aides can cull through electronic records such as e-mail. State law requires the government to produce public records within a reasonable time and to use the least expensive staff able to do the work. Regardless of intent, the effect of Scott's approach is to chill public access by making it time-consuming and expensive to obtain even the most routine public documents. No other governor has taken such a pinched approach to public records, and current Cabinet members promptly produce routine records at little or no cost. Scott's contention that he is following common practice is simply not accurate.
Here's one example illustrating how far the governor has strayed from government-in-the-sunshine. St. Petersburg Times senior correspondent Lucy Morgan obtained thousands of public records to report a series of revealing stories about the expensive new 1st District Court of Appeal courthouse in Tallahassee. The documents included both electronic and paper records, and they came from the courts, state agencies, Florida State University and the governor's budget office under then-Gov. Charlie Crist.
Total cost: $10.50 to FSU for paper records.
Public records requests for electronic copies of e-mail from Scott and his top aides have been far more expensive for the First Amendment Foundation, a nonpartisan nonprofit that promotes open government. (Full disclosure: The Times was a founding sponsor of the foundation, and editor of editorials Tim Nickens is chairman of the foundation's board of directors.)
Total cost for an electronic copy of one week of e-mails in March from Scott communications director Brian Burgess, received in May: $788.84.
Total cost for 24,000 pages of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's e-mails during the entire time she was in office: $725.97.
Scott told the Florida Society of News Editors in St. Petersburg on Friday that his administration has received an exceptionally high number of public records requests (perhaps because the governor and his staff voluntarily release little information, but that's another story). He expressed vague interest in providing more public documents on the Internet. But he said he has an obligation to spend public money responsibly and that passing on the cost of filling public records requests "is the right thing to do."
The governor is flouting the intent of the public records law, and he fails to grasp the cost of his indifference. His punitive public records policy is inflicting considerable damage to this state's rich history of open government and the ability of Floridians to hold their highest elected public official accountable.