Public service? Public records: State must maintain policy that requires disclosure

More and more each year, government agencies in Florida look to private companies to perform public services, from driving school buses and supervising foster children to providing security in Iraq. These moves offer the promise of more efficient services, but what’s often overlooked is privatization’s effect on the ability to scrutinize performance.

Nationwide, privatization too often means less access to important information. Fortunately for Floridians, that has generally not been the case here. Florida law requires most records pertaining to government functions to be public, and they generally don’t make exceptions for those carried out by private entities. That’s something to celebrate this Sunshine Week.

At the state’s privately run prisons, for example, the public has the same right to inspect records – budgets and disciplinary reports, for instance – as they would at the state’s public prisons. That’s because state law declares that “providing access to public records is a duty of each agency,” and defines “agency” to include any “corporation, or business entity acting on behalf of any public agency.” It doesn’t matter, then, whether a government service is provided by public or private employees – most information pertaining to that service must be available.

But ensuring this guarantee requires vigilance. Companies that provide government services in Florida often don’t realize how many of their records are subject to disclosure, and they rarely are pleased to find out. The National Collegiate Athletic Association refused in 2009 to give up records from a cheating scandal involving Florida State University football players until two courts ordered the records released. In 2002, The Post had to sue Laidlaw, a private bus company that transported Martin County public school students, before inspecting its drivers’ personnel files.

The nexus between governments and private companies continues to create problems. Gov. Scott faced criticism last year after a company handling his transition team’s email records deleted them, in violation of state law. Palm Beach County Tax Collector Anne Gannon faces a lawsuit after withholding a legal settlement for weeks because of a private deal she made with the companies she sued. Floridians’ right to know is broad, but these cases remind us that the right exists only if the public fights to maintain it.

– Andrew Marra,

for The Palm Beach Post Editorial Board