Florida agencies usually respond to public records requests

By: Tia Mitchell

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Public record requests sent to a half-dozen state agencies produced relevant documents in a reasonable time frame and generally free of charge, an audit performed as part of the Florida Society of News Editors annual Sunshine Week found.

However, anecdotes from newspapers statewide demonstrate that obtaining documents and data from state agencies is not always this easy and can sometimes be very expensive. The Attorney General’s Office runs a mediation program to assist journalists and members of the public in resolving disputes over public records, but that process is no cure-all.

The offices of Gov. Rick Scott, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and the Agency for Health Care Administration, the Department of Economic Opportunity and the Florida Supreme Court all promptly responded to reporters’ requests for the department head’s daily schedule, travel reports and expense documentation from October.

The only agency that didn’t fulfill the request was the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which is currently the subject of scrutiny after the abrupt and controversial resignation of Commissioner Gerald Bailey. Upon receiving an email asking for public records, an agency spokesman responded with a question about the request but nothing more.

FDLE spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger said the request is being processed along with 300 others, part of a 67-percent increase in the number of public record inquiries at the department in the past two years.

“FDLE received this public records request on Feb. 12, 2015, and continues to process the request,” Plessinger said via email on March 3. “We process requests in the order they are received.”

The Times-Union, Tampa Bay Times, Orlando Sentinel and Palm Beach Post participated in the audit of state agencies.

None of the state agencies required a fee to fulfill the requests. Not all of the Sunshine Week requests produced many documents. For example, Scott prefers to travel on his family-owned private jet and does not always submit paperwork to the state asking for expense reimbursement.

“The search for records has been completed and no records responsive to your request were produced,” his office said in response to the audit request. The governor’s schedule is posted online and emailed to the media daily.

Putnam’s office provided his calendar but said he, too, did not submit travel documentation or expense reports during the month in question. The Department of Economic Opportunity submitted 40 pages of travel documentation in addition to Executive Director Jesse Pannucio’s schedule and expenses for the month.

Reporters across Florida relayed much more troubling responses when making their own public record requests in recent months.

The Florida Department of Health sent the Tampa Bay Times an estimate of $714.18 for copies of the agency’s Ebola team’s incident reports this year. The bulk of the charges were to pay for 13.25 hours of staff time to review the reports and make redactions. Because there were no confirmed cases of Ebola in Florida, the paper questioned the amount of the estimate but ultimately narrowed its request to lower costs.

In June 2014, the South Florida Sun Sentinel asked the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles to comb its Electronic Freight Theft Management System database for information about cargo heists. The agency first told the paper it did not have the information, then said it was exempt. It then estimated the cost could be $5,000 or $10,000 to produce the data, according to editorial page editor Rosemary O’Hara.

After months of conference calls and meetings with lawyers, the department told the paper the new estimate is $8,000.

“The department put us through long delays of giving no response at all and repeatedly trying to give us PDFs when we wanted electronic data extracted,” O’Hara said in an email. “The ‘mediation’ program through the Attorney General was no help.”

Pat Gleason, Bondi’s special counsel for open government, said the mediation process is still ongoing between Sun Sentinel’s and the motor vehicles department, and she is hopeful both sides will ultimately be satisfied now that information technology experts and not lawyers are doing most of the communicating. Gleason said there are countless other examples of mediation being able to resolve public record disputes between city or state agencies and members of the public or the media who requested information.