Public records laws may get some teeth

TALLAHASSEE, Florida --A measure aimed at strengtheningFlorida's public records laws moved easily through a Senate committee onThursday, coincidentally the same day former Gov. Reubin Askew died.

Hehad led the campaign to pass Florida's 1976 Sunshine Amendment, whichrequired financial disclosure by all public officials, candidates andemployees.

Thebill, sponsored by state Sen. Jeremy Ring, pleases open governmentadvocates as an ambitious effort that would limit fees for recordsearches, define which records are confidential or exempt in keepingwith existing court decisions and require private contractors forgovernment agencies to inform that agency before it denies a publicrecords request.

The bill (SB 1648) also requires public agencies to train all employees on the state's open records laws.

"Itis interesting that we did the bill the day (Askew) passed away, as hewas a great pioneer of open government," said Ring, a Broward CountyDemocrat.

"Thelast time we've had bills to really improve the state's public recordslaw was in the '90s," said Barbara Petersen, president of the FirstAmendment Foundation, a media-funded group that monitors thegovernment's compliance with Sunshine laws. She provided input on thelegislation. "It's getting better, I have to say."

Theproposed bill is an "amazing, significant improvement that we haven'tseen for years," added Joel Chandler, executive director of the CitizensAwareness Foundation, an operation devoted to government transparency.

Thebright spot shines in a field of exemptions as Sunshine Week runs thisweek through Saturday. It's a national campaign launched in 2005 to callattention to the importance of open government.

Overall,the Florida Legislature is considering more bills dealing with publicrecords this year than in the past few years, Petersen said.

"Whichsurprises me, because we usually see fewer in an election year andnormally this time of year have about half as many," said Petersen,whose foundation is tracking 125 bills.

The foundation has singled out seven as being particularly bad, whilenoting that five are moves in the right direction, including Ring'sbill, which has a House companion (HB 1151).

Mostof the bills moving through the Legislature seek exemptions to theSunshine law rather than to enhance it, adding to the nearly 1,000exemptions already in place. The bills seek to exempt:

• Email addresses held by a tax collector for the purpose of sending tax notices to individuals (HB 421 and SB 538).

• Personal identifying information in auto accident reports (HB 865 and SB 1046).

•Unsolicited proposals received by a university board of trustees,stipulating that the proposals will be exempt from public disclosureuntil the board receives and ranks the proposals (HB 543).

•The identification of current or former employees of the stateDepartment of Health whose duties include the investigation ofcomplaints against health care practitioners or the inspection offacilities licensed through the department (SB 390).

• Records collected that deal with drug testing of public officials (HB 1437).

•Information identifying applicants for the position of president ordean of a public university or college, and meetings held for thepurpose of vetting those applicants (HB 135 and SB 728).

Thatlast one, the identification of higher education job applicants,particularly annoys Petersen. By limiting early access to the names, itmakes it difficult for newspapers, TV stations and others to investigatethe job applicants before they are hired. Proponents of limiting accessargue that some candidates won't apply if their current employer willfind out early in the process.

"We'veseen it before," she said. "It makes no sense. It's a known fact thatin academia, you move around all over the place. This justification thatpeople won't apply because they might put their job in jeopardy isbaloney."

Theabundance of public records bills is fodder for the Citizens AwarenessFoundation, a nonprofit open records advocacy group that launched inJanuary. It has been part of 70 open records lawsuits since it started,some on its own behalf and others through connecting citizens with abeef to a legal resource.

ExecutiveDirector Chandler has filed more than 200 public records lawsuits inFlorida since 2008. He claims to have prevailed in 99.6 percent of them.

"Whatwe do is ask nice once, but there won't be a second time, and whyshould there be? It's the law in so many of these cases," said Chandler,who ran his own watchdog website before joining Citizens. "I amconvinced that when the public or the media has to bargain withofficials, all that does is embolden the officials to break the law."


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