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Fla. Latest Public Records Exemptions Draws Praise, Criticism From Proponents, Critics Alike

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Governor Rick Scott’s recent approval of three public records exemptions is drawing both criticism and praise from critics and proponents alike.

One bill exempts the records of agencies investigating violations of the Florida RICO Act, the state’s racketeering law to fight organized crime.  The records are no longer exempt once the investigation is completed.

There’s also a public records exemption related to the settlement of a claim on behalf of a minors. The new law—which just took effect—was sponsored by Rep. Kathleen Passidomo (R-Naples) as well as Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez (D-Miami).

“This deals with minor wards who are entering into a settlement agreement with respect to their claims,” he said. “An adult can confidentially settle a lawsuit without court approval. That’s not true for minors. The problem that presents is when you have Guardian ad Litem reports or court documents referencing the terms of a settlement, you don’t want those to be public record.”

And, Florida First Amendment Foundation President Barbara Petersen, a critic of the current public records exemption process, says those two bills the Governor signed into law weren’t bad.

“Those were both limited, and in my opinion, justified exemptions,” said Petersen.

But, she thinks the third measure, the military public records exemption, Scott signed into law is unnecessary.

“I’m very concerned,” she added. “This an exemption for the home addresses of current and former U.S. military personnel, reservists, and National Guard, who served after 9-11.”

In addition to home addresses, the exemption would also cover phone numbers, date of birth, and employment of not just the military members, but their spouses and kids as well.

The measure—which just became law—was authored by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fort Walton Beach), who says he filed it to deter terrorist groups from obtaining military members’ personal information.

“ISIS published a list of U.S. servicemen and women—there were Floridians on that list—and they asked their sympathizers in America to go and kill those brave soldiers and airmen in their own neighborhoods here in this country. And, the reason why they were able to access that information is because often times, we allow information through public records to be very easily accessible by people without having to state their reason for requesting the information,” said Gaetz, in a WFSU interview.

“I understand the knee jerk reaction, is I guess what I’m saying,” said FAF President Petersen. “I understand the military…these people put their lives on the line for us on a daily basis. They serve us in ways that need recognition and support. But, I don’t think a warrant officer who served in Kansas and has retired to Florida is going to be targeted by terrorists, anymore than you or I might be targeted by terrorists.”

Still, she says while she understands Gaetz’ reasoning, she doesn’t believe this was thought through.

“Say, I want my home address exempt,” continued Petersen. “I served after 9-11 in the Marines. What kind of proof do I have to give the custodial agency that in fact I served and my address should be protected? Any documentation I provide like a military service record—like a DD-214—will now be a public record, subject to disclosure. That’s a problem.”

She adds there’s also the issue of who is covered under this bill.

“And the other problem is the bill—now law—is under inclusive in that it protects only those who served after 9-11,” said Petersen. “What about those people who served in the first Gulf War in Operation Desert Storm. So, it kind of doesn’t make sense to me!”

Petersen says because Florida has a high number of current and retired military members, there’s going to be a huge burden on state and local governments—which the bill’s own staff analysis suggests could occur.

“And, it’s going to cause a burden—not just for those of us who are seeking access—it’s also going to be a huge burden for the records custodians,” continued Petersen. “Think about—maybe not in Tallahassee so much—but Tampa, Jacksonville, the Panhandle, where there are a large number of current and former military personnel…how are they going to keep track of whose home address is exempt and whose isn’t? So, the utilities office, the supervisor of elections, the property appraisers…how are they going to keep track?”  

Still, calling it a military friendly bill, Gaetz sees the new law as quite an achievement.

“Well, I’m so pleased that now the servicemen and women who return home from the state of Florida will now be able to take action to preserve the privacy of their personal information and the personal information of their family members and spouses and children,” said Gaetz.

Gaetz says he’s also proud of a “military friendly” measure Scott also signed into law that makes it easier for active and retired military members to renew their Driver’s license by just showing their military ID. It takes effect July 1st.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.

Sascha Cordner has more than ten years of public radio experience. It includes working at NPR member station WUFT-FM in Gainesville for several years. She's worked in both radio and TV, serving in various capacities as a reporter, producer and anchor. She's also a graduate of the University of Florida with a bachelor's degree in telecommunications. She is the recipient of 15 awards from the Associated Press, Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), and Edward R. Murrow. Her award-winning stories include her coverage on the infamous “Dozier School for Boys” and a feature titled "Male Breast Cancer: Lost in the Sea of Pink." Currently, Sascha serves as the host and producer of local and state news content for the afternoon news program "All Things Considered" at WFSU. Sascha primarily covers criminal justice and social services issues. When she's not reporting, Sascha likes catching up on her favorite TV shows, singing and reading. Follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter:@SaschaCordner.