Troubling barriers to public records

Sometimes the media gets a bad rap. Sure, cable talk-shows get people stirred up on both sides of the aisle. But closer to home, knowing that the media is keeping an eye on things can keep politicians from doing bad stuff.

It’s not just the media that keeps an eye on government. Given the money at stake, businesses actually make the most requests for government records, says Barbara Petersen, director of the First Amendment Foundation and Florida’s greatest champion for government transparency.

Citizens, too, can be hound dogs. People like advocate Joel Chandler of Lakeland, who on a Tuesday last November, made a public-records request of the Boynton Beach Police Department and was told the police department lobby is only open on Wednesdays so he should go to city hall, which is closed on Fridays. Chandler filed suit because Chapter 119 of Florida Statutes says public records are supposed to be available “at any reasonable time, under reasonable conditions.”

As we commemorate Sunshine Week this week, the news media’s annual effort to highlight the importance of open government, we commend to your attention some troubling trends in accessing public information — for the media, for businesses and for citizens like yourself.

Most problematic are sky-high fees. Consider these examples provided by Petersen:

$788: What she was charged for a week’s worth of email messages sent or received by Gov. Rick Scott’s former spokesman, Brian Burgess. The governor’s office charged $71 an hour to gather them, a rate that reflected Burgess’ salary. Remember, this was a public employee doing public business.

$3,500: What Joel Chandler was charged for a single-page document from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which outsources the sale of fishing licenses to a private company. The company charged Chandler $175 per hour to produce the document.

$67,000: The estimate given a reporter seeking statistical information from the Department of Juvenile Justice — information your tax dollars pay to assemble.

Enough is enough. Fees are out of hand. To raise the shade on government in the sunshine, we encourage state lawmakers to:

Make fees reasonable: State law says government can charge 15 cents a page or the actual cost of duplication, plus an “extensive use fee” if the request requires an extensive use of agency resources. But there’s no definition of extensive use. The cost of getting property-appraisal databases from Florida’s 67 counties ranged from $50 to $20,000, Petersen said. Fees must be reasonable. And vendors must know they’re subject to the same law.

Eliminate fees for redacting information. So long as government can pass along the cost of redacting information, there’s no incentive to create better-designed websites or use available redaction software.

Make mediation mandatory: Aside from filing a lawsuit, your only recourse when denied access is the Open Government Mediation program. But the program is voluntary and governments don’t generally participate. Lawmakers should make the mediation program mandatory.

Install software that preserves text messages: Technology is available to capture text messages between those on the dais and those seeking to influence them. This technology should be installed on every phone used for public business.

Put more information online: Government could reduce public-records requests by putting more contracts, emails and records online. Petersen says Florida Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford are committed to creating a transparency website next year. A good place to start would be with this year’s SB 1004, by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, which would require state government to create a super list of all public records and databases in its possession.

Guarantee a citizen’s right to speak: Some elected officials refuse to set aside time for public comments at public meetings. For a third year, Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, is proposing a bill that would ensure citizens are given “a reasonable opportunity to be heard” before action is taken. Pass it.

Open government laws work for you.

Help us be their champion.

Rosemary Goudreau, Editorial Page Editor

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