TALLAHASSEE — Sen. Annette Taddeo was surprised when she learned this year that many of her colleagues had no idea that legislators’ redistricting activities were exempt from Florida’s broad public records laws.
Although Florida prides itself on its open records laws, a 28-year-old law exempts legislators from any obligation to produce records of redistricting-related conversations, correspondence and proposed maps. Since then, voters have approved the Fair Districts provisions in the state constitution that prohibit lawmakers from drawing districts that protect incumbents or political parties, or harm minority voting strength.
As legislators embark on the once-a-decade redrawing of state political boundaries, legislative leaders have urged their colleagues to retain all related documents in case the redistricting maps are challenged in court. But, Taddeo warns, by the time those conversations surface in legal documents, it may be too late to change course if the anti-gerrymandering laws are being violated.
This week, Taddeo and Rep. Joe Geller filed bills to end the legislative exemption on redistricting records. They argue that it is an important step to assuring the public that lawmakers are following the law.
Republican leaders have seen the bills before — Taddeo and former Miami Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez filed them in the past — but the proposals never got a hearing.
“Let’s be real,” said Taddeo, a Miami Democrat who is running for governor. “Regular people don’t draw maps. I just think this is so important that it needs to be done in complete sunshine.”
She commended legislative leaders for saying they will conduct a transparent process, “but if you’re truly going to do everything right, we shouldn’t have an exception at all.”
The exemption was enacted in 1993 by the then-Democrat-controlled Legislature. It exempts “a draft, and a request for a draft, of reapportionment plan or redistricting plan and an amendment thereto. Any supporting documents associated with such plan or amendment until a bill implementing the plan, or the amendment, is filed.”
Voters had overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment in 1992 that expanded Florida’s public records law to include the Legislature and the 1993 law that implemented the amendment. But it also gave legislators the ability to write their own rules and exemptions to the public records act. With no Fair Districts amendments to the state constitution at the time, lawmakers exempted the documents that were central to their political power — those related to redistricting.
So what is the reason for retaining public records exemption today? House Congressional Redistricting Committee Chair Tyler Sirois, R-Merritt Island, wouldn’t answer that Wednesday.
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“Right now our committee is focused on the foundational knowledge related to what we need to learn in order to pursue this process moving forward,’’ he said, after his committee reviewed the composition of the current congressional map.
“The members have been instructed in terms of what the expectations are regarding communication and materials related to our meetings, and I I feel comfortable with the instruction they’ve been provided.”
At the committee’s Sept. 23 meeting, Sirois said, “The House of Representatives continues to urge all members to retain all records related to redistricting.” He said records “can include documents and correspondence including emails and texts, regardless of whether they were sent or received on your public or private device.”
He urged all members also “to avoid private conversations about redistricting with individuals who have a vested interest in the outcome of this process and to keep their comments about the redistricting process in alignment with the constitutional standards that apply to redistricting plans.”
He made no mention of public records.
In 2010, legislative leaders approved of the destruction of most of their records relating to redistricting after their maps were drawn. That forced plaintiffs challenging the maps as unconstitutional to ask the court to subpoena documents from political consultants.
With emails and draft maps in hand, lawyers and consultants for the coalition of plaintiffs, led by the Florida League of Women Voters, pieced together the evidence that proved legislators had intentionally violated the state’s anti-gerrymandering law by allowing maps drawn by Republican political consultants to be secretly woven into the final maps drawn by lawmakers. The court threw out their state Senate and congressional maps and approved constitutionally compliant maps in their place.
“I understand why there’s a legislative exemption because not every draft of every possible bill is necessarily a public issue,’’ said Geller, D-Aventura. “But redistricting is a different thing according to the constitution and the Supreme Court of Florida. So if you’re going to have full access, there shouldn’t be this exemption.”
Taddeo argues that since voters determined in 2010 that they do not want legislators to draw maps that favor political parties or incumbents, and approved the Fair Districts standards, legislators should remove the public records exemption and subject their draft maps and communications to the sunshine.
“We should not have any exemptions for the process to be truly trusted,’’ she said.