By Ann Hellmuth and Sara Isaac
The subject was “New Governor - New Rules: The fight for open government,” and three First Amendment experts didn’t pull any punches in warning that Florida’s public records law is under siege in Tallahassee.
“I’m mad as hell,” Orlando Sentinel government/politics editor Bob Shaw told a packed LWVOC Hot Topics luncheon on April 13. “...The [Gov. Rick] Scott administration has turned the public records law on its head.”
Shaw, a board member of the First Amendment Foundation, a non-profit open government watchdog, said the governor admits to taking full advantage of provisions in the public records law that allow government agencies to set “reasonable” fees and to take a “reasonable” amount of time to fulfill public records requests. Reasonable is undefined by law.
Under former Gov. Charlie Crist, Shaw said, reporters’ requests for documents were routinely fulfilled the next day at no charge. But under Scott, most requests are first shuttled to an attorney or high-level official for review. As a result, fees have skyrocketed and even simple requests can take months to fulfill.
The governor’s “policy of charging for a review has spread to every executive agency” in state government, Shaw said. He said newspaper editors are already talking to law firms to “see what we can do about potential action.”
Children’s advocate and former state legislator Dick Batchelor, also a member of the First Amendment Foundation board and head of Dick Batchelor Management Group, a policy planning and consulting firm, warned of the need to keep a “closer eye on the session.”
Legislation that would radically change the makeup of the Florida Supreme Court, allowing the Senate to confirm judicial appointments, is moving rapidly through the Legislature, Batchelor said.
“The Sunshine Law is being ignored,” he said.
Rachel E. Fugate, a Tampa-based attorney for Thomas & LoCicero who has argued open government matters in courts throughout Florida, said “citizens have the right to know what their government is up to.”
But the complexity of Florida’s open government laws, in addition to the explosion of communication in the digital age, can make it difficult and expensive for citizens to enforce that right, Fugate said.
A bill filed last year by Lakeland Sen. Paula Dockery and Rep. Clay Ford of Gulf Breeze would have streamlined and simplified Florida’s open government laws into a single, uniform act, eliminating much of the current confusion. However, the bill died in session and has not been revived this year.
Fugate said the public records law is also complicated by the fact that it contains “lots of exceptions and we see more and more every year.”
Moderator Sara Isaac, a League member and former journalist who currently is a strategist with Salter Mitchell, a national social marketing firm, said that to date Florida legislators have passed more than 1,000 exemptions to the public records law and more are being proposed this year.
Isaac noted that Florida has a long history of support for open government. Building on the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees freedom of the press, Florida passed its first public records law in 1909. The Government-in-the-Sunshine Law guaranteeing public access to government meetings was approved in 1967, and in 1990 Floridians passed a Constitutional Amendment that extended the open meetings law to the state Legislature.
However, Tallahassee’s current attitude toward open government and the use of exorbitant fees and foot-dragging to thwart public records requests is cause for concern, panelists said. It is up to individual Floridians and organizations such as the League, which has long advocated for open government, to promote and protect citizens’ right to oversee their government, panelists said.