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How COVID-19 is clouding government transparency

Your tax dollars pay for public records to be created, stored, and kept up-to-date. But, many aren't being released during the health crisis.
Credit: Getty Images, Poike
Person using a computer, stock image.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — This story is the latest installment in our new series called: "What's Brewing?" It's investigative reporter Jenna Bourne's homemade deep dive into issues surrounding the coronavirus pandemic. Click here to check out the series and subscribe to our new YouTube channel: The Deeper Dive.

The state of Florida says it won’t tell you what its pandemic plan was for schools because it’s a fire hazard.

A fire hazard.

That’s one of the stranger examples of the public records responses 10 Investigates has gotten during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Why should I care about public records?

Public records are about transparency.

Anyone can request them, and they can tell you who commissioners were texting after last night’s meeting, who makes the most overtime in the state, or why a certain police officer got fired.

“A public record is any material made or received by a government agency that facilitates its official business… Documents, texts, emails,” Florida First Amendment Foundation President Pamela Marsh said. 

Your tax dollars pay for public records to be created, stored, and kept up-to-date.

You pay the salaries of the people who maintain those records and who are supposed to release them to you.

A cloudy time for Florida sunshine

Across the country, Florida is known for the openness of its public records rules: the Florida Sunshine Law.

But 10 Investigates has found that sunshine is in the eye of the beholder.

There are enough exemptions in the Florida Sunshine Law to make it easy for government agencies to deny or redact records they don’t want you to have.

“We’ve found that government agencies – state, local, municipalities – are taking advantage of this crisis to take an exemption and sort of mold it the way they want it,” Marsh said.

10 Investigates has been having a hard time getting ahold of public records during the pandemic.

Right now, our team is waiting on more than two dozen unfulfilled public records requests that we’ve put in since the outbreak began.

More than half are related to the government’s readiness for, and response to COVID-19.

These are records that could help you understand whether the government was prepared, whether they followed their own plans, and whether they even had a plan in the first place.

Marsh said the pandemic has had a chilling effect on access to public information.

“It’s slowed it down tremendously. Slowed it down to almost a standstill,” Marsh said. “[I’m] incredibly disappointed and scared, frankly. In a crisis like this, we should have access to as much information – accurate information, as we can get, so that we know how to protect ourselves and our families.”

But when 10 Investigates asked Florida Lieutenant Governor Jeanette Núñez about this, she said she doesn’t see a problem.

“I think that’s a wonderful talking point, but I don’t think it meshes with reality,” Núñez said. “I’m not in charge of reviewing public records requests. But, certainly, I think Florida has done a great job on being transparent.”

It’s a nationwide problem.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has been tracking agencies across the country that say COVID-19 is slowing down their responses to public records requests, like the IRS, HUD and the U.S. Air Force.

Some government agencies still keep some records only in paper form.

Public records custodians working from home could have no access to those hard copies until after they are able to safely return to the office.

Why Florida won’t tell you what its pandemic plan was for schools

10 Investigates has been asking the Florida Department of Education for any plans it had to respond to a pandemic -- specifically a plan that existed before the COVID-19 outbreak.

It’s important information for students and their families, but we’ve been going back and forth with the agency trying to get that basic information for nearly two months.

The Florida Department of Education says it falls under its "Continuity Of Operations Plan," known as a COOP plan for short.

It’s a plan that Florida agencies are required to have to continue operations during any emergency, which supposedly includes pandemics.

The Department of Education says they won’t send us that plan because it falls under a “security and fire safety” exemption.

10 Investigates asked Marsh whether releasing the plan would be a security or fire safety issue.

“I can tell you, when it comes to schools, the floor plan of schools is often thought of as a security issue. But what you’re asking for is not a floor plan. And those documents could also be redacted if there is something like that, that has to deal with an active shooter plan,” Marsh said.

10 Investigates asked the Department of Education four times to redact any part of the plan that reveals “security and fire safety” information and send us the rest.

No response.

We tried calling Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran to help move things along.

Again, no response.

Marsh says access to public records needs to stay consistent, even during a pandemic.

“Well, the Supreme Court of Florida has said they are a cornerstone of our cultural, political process. And I think that means it’s really part of our democracy. It’s a part of who we are as a nation to be able to know about what our government is doing and participate in it,” Marsh said.

RELATED: Looking to venture beyond the headline? Check out 'The Deeper Dive'

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