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Florida way too private with public records


© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 30, 2001

Once upon a time Florida had a real public records law, a pretty good law that allowed folks to see what the people we elect were putting down on paper.

It is now but a fairy tale, a distant memory of what used to be. You can thank the Florida Legislature and the past few governors.

We had a pretty good public meetings law, too, thanks to the 1968 Legislature and the Florida Supreme Court's willingness to expand the law a bit. That law required local school boards, county commissions and other agencies that have impact on our lives and pocketbooks to conduct their business in public.

The Legislature, however, exempted its own meetings and records from the laws it imposed on others.

It took a 1990 amendment to the Constitution to get sunshine into the halls of the Legislature, but it allowed lawmakers to pretty much set their own rules. You can guess how good those rules are.

Ever since legislators came under the terms of that constitutional amendment they've been gradually adding exemptions, making it harder to see records and easier for government boards to meet behind closed doors.

That 1990 amendment, put on the ballot to avoid a citizen initiative that was being pushed by Attorney General Bob Butterworth, also required legislators to pass any amendment to the public records as a separate bill so it couldn't be slipped into law as a hidden amendment to another bill.

Funny what happens to a well-intentioned constitutional amendment when it leaves anything up to the Legislature. Public records exemptions now roll through the Legislature each year, getting little attention unless they happen to involve Dale Earnhardt's autopsy pictures.

Most of the exemptions sound innocuous enough, but taken together and put into play by bureaucrats who don't want anyone to look at their files or question what has been done, they can make it very difficult for the average person to see a record at all.

In many agencies, records are made available only after the payment of enormous fees. Some bureaucrats see public records not as a service that should be provided to the public as a right, but as a profit center or a way to obstruct access.

Several years ago the Legislature passed a bill to exempt the Social Security numbers of state employees from the public records law. These numbers are available in lots of places, like on your driving records, but if you want to see the personnel file of an employee hired by the state, it can be a hassle.

We can go in the door of a state agency with the Social Security number in hand, but must wait, sometimes for weeks, to see a file. And when the agency wants to really discourage us from looking at such records, they start charging big fees, the kind that would easily deter the average person.

Before the Social Security exemption was written into law, it was easy to walk into a state agency and ask to see the personnel file of a person who was being paid with tax money to do a public job. If you wanted to see a police officer's file, you had to wait for them to black out home addresses and telephone numbers, but you could quickly determine whether the person had the qualifications and background for the job.

That was the way things used to be.

We recently needed to see the files of the three finalists for the top job at the Florida Highway Patrol. To get a copy of the files, it would cost about $600, the FHP estimated.

Okay, suppose we just look at them and copy important parts?

That would be $175 -- just to look. Copies would cost us an additional 50 cents a page, the FHP said.

All of this just to take a good look at the public career of three men who were being considered for the top job at an agency that has often been riddled with cronyism and other troubles.

The fee to look at records once available for review without a fee is necessary because they have to "prep" the files, we're told. They copy each page, black out the exemptions they can take on each page and copy the blacked-out page. Legally speaking, agencies can charge us for clerical time. More often than not, as in the FHP case, they charge instead for the time of a supervisor.

You can imagine how long a good bureaucrat can delay access to a file under this system. And the extraordinary cost makes access to most records out of the realm of possibility for most citizens as well as some newspapers.

In a day when newspapers around the country are laying off staff and cutting costs, many papers weigh the cost against the news story. This means you -- and we -- are likely to know less and less about the people who govern us.

Perhaps some enlightened leader -- maybe a governor or a legislator -- will decide to make this a cause and do something to return the Sunshine State to the light of day.

Keeping public records accessible should be part of the public duty of everyone who serves on a public payroll. After all our taxes pay the bills.

Until someone sees the light in this situation, we should call ourselves the Partly Cloudy State.

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