Fla. governments improve in public records audit

BY JENNIFER KAY,

Associated Press Writer

MIAMI, Fla. (AP) — A statewide test that requested information from local governments showed that most are complying with Florida’s public records law, a major improvement over past years when most did not.

The audit was conducted as part of Sunshine Week, a nonpartisan, national effort that begins Sunday and highlights the importance of the public’s right to hold its government accountable through the free flow of information between government and citizens. It was initiated by the Florida Society of News Editors with help from the First Amendment Foundation.

Sheriffs, school superintendents and county administrators in Florida’s 67 counties were sent randomly generated e-mails containing anonymous public records requests asking each agency to list all employees and their salaries in 2010.

This information is public, and in Florida public records can be requested anonymously by e-mail, verbally or in writing. The e-mails specified that no personal information, such as the employees’ home addresses, was being sought.

A total of 201 agencies were initially e-mailed Feb. 14 and Feb. 15 by a “Florida taxpayer” requesting a spreadsheet of the salary information.

Fifty-three agencies did not reply or could not be contacted by e-mail, including the Broward and Hamilton county sheriff’s offices, which would not provide e-mail addresses.

The vast majority — 86.5 percent — of the 148 agencies that responded complied with the law.

That’s a major improvement from audits in past years that showed less than half the agencies complying, said Barbara Petersen, president of the Tallahassee-based First Amendment Foundation.

The previous audits also were made anonymously, but by volunteers in person at local government offices.

More public records law training by local governments may have increased the positive response rate, Petersen said.

“Also, I think the fact that these requests were made via e-mail had something to do with the good showing,” she said. “To send a record as an attachment via e-mail is convenient and quick for government workers, and the cost of providing access to public records in electronic formats is comparatively low.”

A total 71 agencies produced the records quickly and free of charge.

Another 42 said they would provide copies of the records for fees ranging from 50 cents to $240, as is permitted by the law.

Fifteen additional agencies said they would provide the records but insisted they were only available in paper form, insisted they had to be picked up in person or imposed some other kind of condition for obtaining them.

Only 13.5 percent of the agencies that responded failed to comply with the law. Some promptly replied to the initial request but then did not provide the records or a means of obtaining them, or only released part of the records and did not respond to follow-up requests.

The school superintendents in Taylor, Wakulla and Washington counties were deemed noncompliant because they responded with a letter from the attorney representing the Panhandle Area Educational Consortium stating that officials had “information to suggest your request may be intended for improper purposes, such as identity theft.” Any records provided would have to be mailed to a Florida address or viewed in person, the letter said.

Of the consortium’s other 10 school superintendents contacted in the audit, one could not be reached by e-mail, eight did not reply and one was considered noncompliant for sending details for obtaining the records on the school district website, but that information did not fulfill the request.

The consortium’s attorney, Bob Harris, said some of its superintendents contacted him with concerns that the e-mails’ origins and anonymity were suspicious. He wrote the letter so all the districts in the consortium would have a consistent response, he said.

“They cannot deny the information, I’ve told them that,” Harris said. “But they will be cautious. It is that caution which made them contact me.”

The consortium is sending a letter to Florida’s attorney general asking for guidance on how to respond to requests that seem improper, Harris said.

For this year’s Sunshine Week, many newspapers, broadcasters, Internet operations and other media outlets will be reporting on government attempts to block the public’s right to know _ and the steps taken to counter those moves.

The initiative began nine years ago with Sunshine Sunday in Florida, organized by the then-Florida Society of Newspaper Editors and the First Amendment Foundation. It was in response to legislative efforts to thwart open government through dozens of proposed exemptions to the state’s Government in the Sunshine Law, one of the nation’s strongest affirmations of the freedom of public information.

The American Society of Newspaper Editors, supported by grants from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, launched Sunshine Week in 2005.