TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) – A measure aimed at strengthening Florida's public records laws moved easily through a Senate committee on Thursday, coincidentally the same day former Gov. Reubin Askew died.
He had led the campaign to pass Florida's 1976 Sunshine Amendment, which required financial disclosure by all public officials, candidates and employees.
The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Jeremy Ring, pleases open government advocates as an ambitious effort that would limit fees for record searches, define records that are confidential or exempt in keeping with existing court decisions and require private contractors for government agencies inform that agency before it denies a public records request.
The bill (SB 1648) also requires public agencies to train all employees on the state's open records laws.
"It is interesting that we did the bill the day (Askew) passed away, as he was a great pioneer of open government,'' said Ring, a Broward County Democrat. "The last time we've had bills to really improve the state's public records law was in the `90s,'' said Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, a media-funded group that monitors the government's compliance with Sunshine laws.
She provided input on the legislation. "It's getting better, I have to say."
The proposed bill is an "amazing, significant improvement that we haven't seen for years,'' added Joel Chandler, executive director of the Citizens Awareness Foundation, an operation devoted to government transparency.
The bright spot shines in a field of exemptions as Sunshine Week runs this week through Saturday. It's a national campaign launched in 2005 to call attention to the importance of open government.
Overall, the Florida Legislature is considering more bills dealing with public records this year than in last few years, Petersen said. "Which surprises me, because we usually see fewer in an election year and normally 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, while noting that five are moves in the right direction, including Ring's bill, which has a House companion (HB 1151).
Most of the bills moving through the Legislature seek exemptions to the Sunshine law rather than to enhance it, adding to the nearly 1,000 exemptions already in place.
The bills seek to exempt:
o Email addresses held by a tax collector for the purpose of sending tax notices to individuals (HB 421 and SB 538).
o Personal identifying information in auto accident reports (HB 865 and SB 1046).
o The identification of current or former employees of the state Department of Health whose duties include the investigation of complaints against health care practitioners or the inspection of facilities licensed through the department (SB 390).
o Records collected that deal with drug testing of public officials (HB 1437).
o Information identifying applicants for the position of president or dean of a public university or college, and meetings held for the purpose of vetting those applicants (HB 135 and SB 728).
o Unsolicited proposals received by a university board of trustees, stipulating that the proposals will be exempt from public disclosure until the board receives and ranks the proposals (HB 543).
That last one, the identification of higher education job applicants, particularly annoys Petersen.
By limiting early access to the names, it makes it difficult for newspapers, TV stations and others to investigate the job applicants before they are hired. Proponents of limiting access argue that some candidates won't apply if their current employer will find out early in the process.
"We've seen it before,'' she said. "It makes no sense. It's a known fact that in academia, you move around all over the place. This justification that people won't apply because they might put their job in jeopardy is baloney.''
The abundance of public records bills is fodder for the Citizens Awareness Foundation, a non-profit open records advocacy group that launched in January. It's been part of 70 open records lawsuits since it started, some on its own behalf and others through connecting citizens with a beef to a legal resource.
Executive Director Chandler has filed over 200 public records lawsuits in Florida since 2008. He claims to have prevailed in 99.6 percent of them.
"What we do is ask nice once, but there won't be a second time, and why should there be? It's the law in so many of these cases,'' said Chandler, who ran his own watchdog website before joining Citizens. "I am convinced that when the public or the media has to bargain with officials, all that does is embolden the officials to break the law.''