Cloudy With A Chance Of Sunshine? Lawmakers Eye More Public Record Exemptions

Apr 15, 2015

The public records exemption is a constant in every legislative session. Ever since a majority of Floridians amended the state constitution to ensure broad access to governmental records and meetings, restrictions to public meetings and records increase every legislative session.

Record exemptions vary drastically from issue to issue. They require a two-thirds vote by both chambers, as they modify a constitutional right. Still, the number of exemptions increases with each lawmaking session.  Fifty records exemptions have been filed in 2015, putting the legislature on track to surpass last session's all-time high of 22 passed exemptions. But it's not the growing cloud of exemptions that worries the First Amendment Foundation's Barbara Petersen, it's the wavering logic used to justify them.

 "This year there are more scary bills than I've seen in a really long time," said Petersen, a longtime transparency advocate.  

Peterson says the bills are “scary” because the exemptions would obscure vast amounts of information, as is the case with email addresses obtained by tax collectors. Sarasota County alone sends electronic tax notices to nearly 33,000 residents. The statewide number is expected to balloon. 

Petersen’s concern is noted says bill sponsor, Representative Dane Eagle. But the Cape Coral Republican thinks the exemption is necessary.  

"I understand their concern, but I'm only focused on the current exemption we're looking at and the harm that it’s caused without it and the need to fix it," said Eagle.

Neither Eagle nor spokespersons for multiple tax collectors could pinpoint a specific incident of fraud that this exemption would prevent, and Peterson isn’t convinced the bill is necessary.

 "You don't protect people by closing access to public records information," she said.

Protection is on Fort Lauderdale Democratic Senator Chris Smith's mind.  His proposal requiring law enforcement to use body cameras has been watered down and now creates a public record exemption for certain footage collected by the cams.  

"In this society, we have a tremendous amount of voyeurism. If people think a police officer going into your bed room needs to be public record, that's just where I draw the line," said Smith.

His bill is a response to the national conversation surrounding police brutality and accountability and is now up on the Senate floor. But due to the changes in the bill, its opponents are the very groups that once demanded it. 

"Let's be real, this really isn't about privacy, if so, it would regulate both sides. It's about cutting the public off and allowing law enforcement to be the sole decision makers about what we get to see," said ACLU Florida Director of Public Policy, Michelle Richardson.

"As much as law enforcement says they're worried about privacy, not one of the groups interacting with the police are asking for this."

“The idea that we'd need to throw the switch on something, for no good reason, that never happens," said Rep. Neil Combee, R-Polk.

Combee wants to throw the switch on higher education—specifically, public university presidential searches. The issue of open application processes has long rankled university boards which have complained they can’t get high quality applicants to apply for jobs in the Sunshine. The case: some people won’t apply because they don’t want their current employer to know they’re looking. Combee puts it this way: “A lot of the applications you get are from people who've been fired, or who feel like the writing is on the wall, and they've got nothing to lose," he said.

But Florida universities are also ideal places for politicians who apply for top university jobs, and in the case of former State Senator and now FSU President John Thrasher, they get them.

There are exemptions that do fulfill a need. Take like Riverview Republican Rep. Ross Spano’s safehouse bill. It protects the locations of safe houses for victims of sexual exploitation and trafficking.  But that’s the exception to what’s becoming an increasingly worrisome rule for the First Amendment Foundation’s Barbara Peterson. She says Florida residents who want a look behind the curtain, each new record exemption makes it that much harder.