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Public Records Bills Generate Discussion Ahead Of Regular State Legislative Session

Florida Capitol Complex
Florida Capitol Complex

Scores of bills related to government transparency have been filed in the state legislature. At least a few have are progressing through committees ahead of regular session.

Pamela Marsh is the executive director of the Florida First Amendment Foundation. Marsh says the Foundation is monitoring more than 90 bills related to open government and First Amendment protections. Many are duplicate bills in both chambers. Some would increase government transparency, including a proposal that would bar local governments from taking people to court for submitting public records requests.

“The government is a big beast. It’s like if the government comes after you, that’s an elephant. And you need to have an elephant gun to go up against the government. That’s a difficult place to be in for most citizens. We support this bill. We don’t believe an agency should be allowed to take you to court simply because you request records.”

SB 400 passed the Governmental Oversight and Accountability Committee with a unanimous vote. The House version hasn’t yet received a committee reading. Marsh says other proposals would have more of a chilling effect on the press. At least a few bills would add to 11-hundred and 59 public records exemptions already on the books.

“To pass more exemptions is just to put more of a burden on everyone and for more information to be withheld from the public eye about what their governments are really up to.”

Proposals to shield mug shots and the home addresses of state lawmakers and cabinet members have been filed. Marsh says legislation to exempt personal identifying information of college and university president applicants from public records is moving quickly. The senate version of that bill has already passed two committees and is on its way to a third.

“This bill doesn’t contain a number of finalists that would be required to be disclosed. So frankly, the section committee and the hired search firms could come up with only one candidate only at the end with twenty-one days for the public to vet and that’s it. It’s like the community would not have a meaningful say in the decision making.”

Republican State Representative Sam Garrison of Orange Park sponsored the House version of the bill. Garrison previously served as chairman of the board of trustees at Saint John’s River State College in Northeast Florida.

“From my perspective, given the amount of money and resources that we put towards making sure that we have a first-class university system and first-class state college system. It makes sense to me that we would want to have the deepest, most qualified, most diverse pool of applicants for boards to choose from when they’re making that very important decision.”

Garrison says he hasn’t seen data from other states showing that exempting the identity of applicants for university and college president would achieve this. Still, he believes the exemption makes sense.

“Let’s say you’re a provost at an institution somewhere in Utah and you want to apply to be a president of a school in the Florida College System, but you don’t really know what’s going on and you know that if you put in your application that may cause you problems back home. And you’re willing to do it but there’s a risk associated with that. It’s really just kind of an understanding of how human nature works. There’s really no experiential evidence that I think you could point to.”

Garrison says he’s not sure why the House version of the bill hasn’t yet received a committee reading. With the Senate bill moving quickly through committee, it’s expected to continue to generate discussion when lawmakers meet for regular session next week.

Note: WFSU is a member of the Florida First Amendment Foundation.

Valerie Crowder hosts and produces state and local newscasts during All Things Considered. Her reporting on local government and politics has received state and regional award recognition. She has also contributed stories to NPR newscasts.