TALLAHASSEE -- Amid a lawsuit alleging that state leaders violated the Sunshine Law in firing Florida’s top law enforcement officer, lawmakers in the Capitol are considering more than 50 proposals to limit Floridians’ access to public records.
Bills filed for the session that began this month could make it harder for members of the public to obtain email addresses from government agencies, surveillance video from public buildings and records from presidential searches at state universities. Senators and representatives who sponsor bills limiting access to records say they’re trying to protect public privacy, but open government advocates argue that the changes will make it harder for journalists and other watchdog groups to do their jobs.
“We’ve seen ... no more than three bills passed that enhance public access in 24 years,” said Barbara Petersen, executive director of the First Amendment Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for greater transparency in government.
Petersen said there are now more than 1,100 exceptions to Florida public records and open meetings laws, widely considered some of the most permissive in the country. And last year was a record-breaking year for protecting government agencies from public requests.
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One of the exceptions proposed by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, would stop county tax collectors’ offices from releasing email addresses of citizens it communicates with. Emails with public agencies and elected officials have long been considered public record, including the addresses they’re sent to.
Latvala said it’s too easy to access Floridians’ email addresses via online tax collector records. It’s leading to scams, he said, and his bill would protect consumers.
“It happens every day. People are scamming,” Latvala said. “I have a responsibility to protect people’s identities and protect the people who I represent from scams, and I think that’s wide open for scams. And I’m not arguing with anyone on it.”
Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, sponsored a bill to exempt surveillance video taken at community development districts, which are public agencies. He said he was reacting to a report from Ballantrae Community Development District in Pasco County that their video files were being requested by outside groups to monitor license plates on cars passing through the cameras’ frames.
“We want to make sure we have open government and access to government,” Legg said. “I think a little bit of rationality is needed there. Our goal is to just protect a community.”
Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, and Rep. Neil Combee, R-Polk County, filed bills to protect the names of people who apply for president, provost or dean of a state university and to close related meetings to members of the public. Hays argues that by increasing privacy, more people will be attracted to top jobs at Florida colleges and universities.
While each bill narrowly defines the records it proposes to exempt, Petersen said she fears far-flung effects. Lawmakers have to include a justification for any new exemption, and those justifications can be used in court to apply to other records that aren’t in the scope of the original bill.
“If the justification for this exemption is true,” she said about Latvala’s email address bill, “then it applies to every email address held by any government agency. It’s kind of like the Mount Everest of slippery slopes.”
Exceptions proposed this year fit into an anti-Sunshine culture in recent years.
In the last year, the state’s executive branch has done more to fight the release of records than at any time in recent history.
Gov. Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi and the Republican Party of Florida each were engaged in legal fights to keep documents under wraps.
During the election, Scott’s lawyers delayed the release of documents by arguing in court a new approach to public records. They attempted to shift the burden for holding the public records from the state to individual employees and told Tallahassee attorney Steven R. Andrews he had to sue the employees to get the public records. After the election, Scott’s lawyers reversed that argument, agreeing with Sunshine law precedent that it is the state’s duty to archive and collect all public records whether or not they reside on public or private accounts.
In defending against the lawsuits, Scott’s attorneys also made a new legal claim — that calendars are “transitory” and could therefore be changed and altered before being released as a public record. Meanwhile, the Legislature’s fights over redistricting revealed that when it comes to the sensitive topic of drawing political boundary lines, lawmakers conducted critical discussions behind closed doors at the same time they were claiming that the process was one of the most “transparent” in state history.
“It’s gotten worse each year,” said Democratic Leader Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach. “I think it really debilitates in a lot of ways the people’s ability to understand what the thinking is behind a certain action.”