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Open-Government Group Urges Vetoes For Public Records Exemptions

Among the bills heading to Gov. Rick Scott’s desk this week are two that create new exemptions to Florida’s public records laws. The president of a group that advocates for more open government is saying she wishes lawmakers would debate such measures more thoughtfully, and she’s urging the governor to veto them.

Public servants use our tax money to govern, and we the public get to judge the job they’re doing. That’s why Floridians have the constitutional right to access government information, according to Barbara Peterson, president of the nonprofit, nonpartisan First Amendment Foundation.

“The public uses the public records law all the time and they use the open meetings law all the time; they just don’t realize it,” Peterson said.

So-called sunshine laws allow us to do things like go to school board meetings, or request utilities records for a house we’re considering buying. But, Peterson said, two bills that passed this week would limit sunshine laws. The first one removes from public record the names of spouses and children of public officials including law enforcement officers and prosecutors.

“Anonymity in public record is a very slippery slope,” she said. “Second, we would have no way of knowing if a spouse is getting some sort of sweetheart deal.”

The second bill keeps election supervisors from having to disclose the e-mail addresses of registered voters. This new exemption goes with another bill allowing voter registration by e-mail, in an effort to reduce paper. Sponsors say the exemption protects voters’ privacy and prevents them from getting spammed.

But Peterson said, when the bill got to the floor, it had two severe flaws: First, it exempted voter e-mails held by any agency, including city council. And it would have exempted public officials’ e-mails as well. She said, that would allow them to lean on the voter e-mail exemption to not share whom they’re corresponding with.

“How does a bill like house bill 249, which has a major impact on the public’s right of access, just sail through its committees? And that’s just what it did. Not one person on staff pointed out the practical concerns with this bill. Not one legislator questioned it. How did that happen?” Peterson said.

She points to the foundation’s Government in the Sunshine Manual, which contains all state exemptions. She said, it’s gotten fatter and fatter every year since the early ‘80s. Since then, the number of exemptions to public record laws has more than quadrupled.

And she said, many exemptions are understandable. But what frustrates her is the lack of debate.

“I’ve been in a committee meeting where they pass eight public records exemptions in three minutes. It’s just, up and unanimous, up and unanimous. And there’s no discussion of it,” she said.

Rep. Bryan Nelson (R-Apopka), who sponsored the voter registration e-mail exemption, ended up amending it. Now, it would be just election supervisors who are exempt from disclosure.

On the House floor on Thursday, he said, “This amendment makes it clear that the public record exemption applies only to e-mail addresses attained by an agency for purposes of voter registration. This addresses concerns by the First Amendment Foundation.”

Peterson said, she’s happy with the change, but she still wishes there were no exemption at all.

But, she said, with five days left in the legislative session, she’s turning her attention to three bills she said would make government more open. One, which passed the Senate but is awaiting House action, would guarantee the public’s right to speak at public meetings. The others, which are awaiting compromises between the two chamber versions, would make the state’s contracting and finances more transparent.