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Purging the public will

Key archival communications were lost when the House speaker's chief of staff deleted all her e-mails, an action which may have violated state law.


Published May 15, 2004

When the top staffer for the speaker of the Florida House dumps all her e-mails the day after the legislative session is over, the act shouldn't be received with a dismissive shrug. E-mail communications that illuminate the way Florida leaders enact public policy are supposed to be saved and made available to the public upon request. Both the state Constitution and Florida statutes spell out a strong presumption in favor of retaining and sharing public records.

But that is not how P.K. Jameson, chief of staff to House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, sees it. Jameson, an attorney, informed the St. Petersburg Times that a public records request for all e-mails she received during the session's last two days, April 29 and 30, could not be filled because she had deleted them all, except for those items she forwarded to other legislative staff members. Her excuse is that the volume of e-mail she received was too large to save and the "please hear this bill kind of stuff" had no value after the session.

Jameson's version of what e-mails hold archival value is all wrong. During the last two days of the session, lawmakers, lobbyists and citizens are desperately communicating with the speaker and his chief of staff, trying to maneuver certain bills onto the floor for a vote or trying to block others. These e-mail communications document the legislative process in a way that few other public records do. They are just the kinds of records that historians and social scientists, not to mention journalists and the general public, would find invaluable in piecing together the story of the session.

Some of these e-mails, if made public, might be embarrassing to Jameson because they shed a bright light on the back-door deal-making that occurred in the Legislature's final hours. If thwarting public access to sensitive e-mails was Jameson's impetus for destroying them, she has violated state law and probably House rules as well.

Of course, one way to figure out what has been lost is to try to retrieve it. A deleted e-mail isn't necessarily gone for good. Copies may exist on Jameson's hard drive or elsewhere in the system. But Michael Dodson, general counsel in the Office of Legislative Services, says the House has no legal obligation to search for the discarded e-mail, claiming that once Jameson made the determination that the e-mails were not valuable public records, they became trash.

This self-serving stance leaves no mechanism in the House to police abuses of the public records rules and law. Under Byrd's leadership, Florida's traditional protection for public access to the records of its government was taken lightly.

The House should take a lesson from Gov. Jeb Bush. His office meticulously saves every e-mail on policy or legislative issues. The office computer system automatically archives those e-mails after a certain date so they are easily retrievable.

Jameson and Dodson are trying to establish an extremely crimped reading of public records - one that puts too much information out of public reach. Floridians should hope that the probable next House speaker, Republican Allan Bense of Panama City, will have a different approach. Generous access to public records is indicative of an administration that welcomes public scrutiny - something that Byrd's staff is trying to avoid.

[Last modified May 15, 2004, 01:00:35]


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