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Keep sun shining on public records

A Times Editorial
Published March 11, 2007


One of Charlie Crist's first acts as governor was to publicly embrace the value of government in the sunshine. He created the Office of Open Government, saying that under his administration transparency will be "like never before." That's a welcome change in attitude from the prior administration.

Today is "Sunshine Sunday," a day when we join other newspapers across the state in raising public awareness of the importance of open government. The goal is to remind citizens of their right and duty to hold their elected government accountable.

Our state's commitment to public access to the workings of government allows not only the news media, but all Floridians, to act as watchdogs. Without open records laws, there would be no way to examine contracts surrounding large public works projects for sweetheart deals or conflicts of interest. There would be no way to learn of an investigation of a police officer who has used excessive force. Just knowing their actions can be scrutinized keeps some public officials more honest and above board than they might otherwise be.

Yet every year, the Legislature offers up an array of new ways to shield the workings of government from citizens. More than a thousand public records exemptions are already on the statute books, and lawmakers this session will be considering new measures that have the potential to limit access to huge numbers of government-produced records.

The governor will need to exert strong leadership to prevent these measures from becoming law. This legislative session will test Crist's commitment to open government.

The most dangerous proposals in the works would close off public records containing any personal identification information, unless the subject of that information gives permission. The bills, HB 1213 and SB 2818, may be aimed at protecting people from identity theft, but they would take the state in the wrong direction. House Bill 1213 is co-sponsored by Rep. Bill Proctor, R-St. Augustine. The Senate bill, SB 2818, is sponsored by Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa.

The bills would exempt a public record from disclosure if it contained any personal identifying information, defined as a name, mailing address, telephone number, etc. Official records would not be included under this exemption, but many more records of public interest would be sealed off.

Let's say you were interested in checking on the professional license of a contractor. You would have to first get his written permission. And if you wanted to investigate the personnel file of the local sheriff to see how much taxpayers are paying him, he would have to agree.

Adria Harper, director of the First Amendment Foundation, suggests that even criminal records could be exempted from public records laws under this legislation, preventing the public from discovering criminal histories of their neighbor or nanny.

Other bills would make it a crime to possess someone else's personal information. These bills, HB 1117, sponsored by Rep. John Legg, R-Port Richey, and HB 1211 and its companion SB 2268, sponsored by Rep. Proctor and Sen. Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville, would gut access to many public records but come at it another way.

House Bill 1117 would make it a third-degree felony to possess "sensitive personal information" without first obtaining permission of the subject. House Bill 1211 and SB 2268 would make it a second-degree misdemeanor to obtain and distribute personal identification information without the subject's permission.

These measures seem to apply to individuals and not corporations, but they would still have a chilling effect on a free press. Every journalist in the state - particularly freelancers and those who aren't associated with large news organizations - could face prosecution for collecting and reporting personal information on a story subject.

Only when personal information is obtained in a fraudulent or deceitful manner, or is to be used for fraud or theft, should its possession be a criminal act. Otherwise, the First Amendment is violated.

Another bill to watch, SB 1182, comes out of the Senate Commerce Committee. It would grant an indefinite exemption to some of the records generated by the state's economic development agencies. These agencies entice businesses to Florida or convince them to remain here, usually by dangling tax incentives.

There are real reasons to question whether Florida gets what it pays for in these deals. Often, the promise of bringing good jobs to the state is illusory at best.

The public should at least be able to determine whether a company that won substantial tax breaks actually fulfilled its promises and expanded employment with good-paying jobs. But SB 1182 would shield from public view records on the average wage paid for any newly created jobs, among other economic incentive information held by the agencies.

These bills are the worst of the bunch. But it is hard to know whether something worse isn't planned. At least a dozen shell bills have been filed - bills that express a legislative intent to create a public records exemption but without any details yet. They are place-holder bills, and they are where mischief can occur.

Government in the sunshine is a hallmark of our state. Our new governor was an advocate for open government as attorney general, and he has boldly reaffirmed that commitment in the early going of his new job. We are counting on him to continue to stand up for the people's right to know in the face of a Legislature all too willing to erode that right.

[Last modified March 11, 2007, 01:21:13]

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