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  1. Opinion

Column: A call to action on public records in Florida

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Published Jan. 26, 2018

Editor's note: Carol Marbin Miller of the Miami Herald and Audra Burch, who has since joined the New York Times, won the Florida First Amendment Foundation's Lucy Morgan Award for Open Government Reporting for a series called "Fight Club," an investigation that exposed savage and systemic abuses against youths in Florida's juvenile justice system. What follows, a call to action on public records, are excerpts of Marbin Miller's acceptance speech.

You do not have to be an investigative reporter to know that the open government laws in Florida — and watchdog journalism everywhere — are under siege.

Fight Club was two years in the making. That's a commitment that is increasingly rare as staffs shrink and profit margins decline.

Like a lot of accountability journalism, Fight Club started small. When we learned that a teenager likely had been beaten to death on the orders of a youth officer, we were determined to figure out exactly what had happened, and whether what happened was an aberration, or part of a pattern.

Our review of several thousand pages of inspector general reports led us to a man named Uriah Harris. Harris had repeatedly used a broom handle to beat good manners into teenagers who cussed at the Avon Park Youth Academy. His Florida criminal history was stunning: Harris had been arrested 11 times, including for such offenses as resisting arrest, domestic violence, aggravated battery and child neglect.

Harris became an important character in Fight Club, but he was not the only person with a deeply disturbing criminal history who had unfettered access to teenagers we are supposed to be protecting and rehabilitating in our billion-dollar juvenile justice system.

But if Senate Bill 690 is signed into law this session, the arrest records of Uriah Harris, and as many as a million other Floridians, will vanish from our sight.

Who among us — and who among our lawmakers — would want Uriah Harris to babysit their children? To be a caregiver for a frail parent? Who would leave Uriah Harris alone with their developmentally disabled or autistic child, not knowing what was lurking in his past?

When this bill passes — and it will, absent a veto from Gov. Rick Scott — you will have no way of knowing the criminal history of any Floridian who was not convicted of a crime.

Maybe Uriah Harris is a profoundly unlucky guy, arrested 11 times for crimes he did not commit. Maybe that's a risk you'd take at your daughter's day care center, or your dad's nursing home.

The bill's supporters will tell you that an arrest record can be a lethal impediment to employment prospects, particularly for poor people, and people of color. There are ways to deal with that. We were all young once. Surely people who make hiring decisions can tell the difference between a kid who shoplifted on a dare in seventh grade and a serial predator with a good public defender.

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But suppressing the truth, and rewriting history, is never the answer. Democracy thrives in the sunshine. It wilts in the darkness. If you doubt this, go to the movies and watch The Post. It's a necessary history lesson, and, spoiler alert, it has a happy ending. The truth always comes out. You have never heard your parents or your Sunday school teachers say that "dishonesty is the best policy."

Other news organizations have offered the kind of reporting Floridians require as the state continues to serve as a bellwether for the nation: In a fine series called Walking While Black, the Jacksonville Times-Union and ProPublica revealed stark racial disparities in the Duval County Sheriff's enforcement of jaywalking and other minor offenses. The Tampa Bay Times explored the deadly consequences of a teen car theft epidemic in its Hot Wheels series. Both my paper and the Sun Sentinel looked at how 12 elders baked to death in a nursing home-turned-hothouse. The Palm Beach Post has been relentless in mapping every square inch of the opioid crisis.

All of these stories rest upon a solid foundation of public records. That's where you go to find truth. Access to public records is a constitutional right in Florida, and yet, today, there are 1,122 discrete and largely illegitimate exceptions to that right. The First Amendment Foundation's Barbara Petersen is monitoring 83 bills right now.

As legislative committees hold hearings in response to Fight Club, it is worth noting that Herald readers — and lawmakers — would know a great deal more about conditions in our juvenile detention centers had we been able to read scores of inspector general reports detailing the abuses. But we couldn't, because Department of Juvenile Justice administrators wasted no time in destroying the records after the five-year retention requirement expired — a retention schedule developed when records were stored in filing cabinets, not cyberspace.

And after the Herald reported that Broward emergency managers had failed to even eyeball the emergency management plan of the Hollywood nursing home where 12 frail elders died, Broward and other counties refused to disclose any others, deploying a ridiculous exemption meant to protect public buildings from terrorists.

How do we turn this rising tide of secrecy?

We can aggressively and vigorously insist that the spirit and the letter of the law be followed. But as the Florida press corps has shrunk, so has its infrastructure. We have fewer First Amendment lawyers, fewer advocates and fewer dollars to spend in defense of the public's right to know. This is our weakness, and those who would govern in darkness know this.

As reporters, we know the difference between public officials who are acting in good faith and those who are playing games. We need to get better at talking about it. "DCF tightens grip on records" was the headline on a front page of the Miami Herald next to a wall of black ink that covered up — pun intended -— a ridiculously redacted public record in a story I wrote about how the Department of Children and Families turned dark after a series Audra and I wrote about the deaths of 477 children.

And thanks to the Times-Herald Tallahassee bureau's Mary Ellen Klas, we know that the Florida Agency For Health Care Administration also ratcheted up the redactions in the wake of nursing home stories the agency does not consider sufficiently positive.

On every story on every beat, every day, we can and should be telling readers every single time we stumble over a legal, or illegal, roadblock to the right to know that our Florida Constitution provides. We do not do this for ourselves. We do this for our readers, who depend upon us to keep them informed.

We know how to write, and we know what needs to be written. We can win this war. And we must.