March 21, 2014
As we commemorate Sunshine Week this week, please be aware of sky-high fees for obtaining public records.
Consider these examples provided by Barbara Petersen, director of the First Amendment Foundation:
$788: What Peterson 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.
$3,500: What a citizen was charged for a single page from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which outsources the sale of fishing licenses to a private company. The company charged $175 per hour.
$67,000: The estimate given a reporter seeking statistical information from the Department of Juvenile Justice.
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.
■ 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 start would be Senate Bill 1004 by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg.It 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.
Open government laws work for you. Help us be their champion.
Rosemary Goudreau, Editorial Page Editor, Sun Sentinel, Fort Lauderdale