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Audit shows Florida officials often deny public records access

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    News Media Update         FLORIDA         Freedom of Information    

Audit shows Florida officials often deny public records access

  • In Florida’s first statewide public records audit, public officials violated the state open records law 43 percent of the time.

Feb. 13, 2004 — Forty-three percent of government agencies in Florida violated the state open records law, according to a statewide audit published Feb. 7.

Organized by The Sarasota Herald-Tribune, the Florida First Amendment Foundation and the Florida Press Association, the audit covered 234 government agencies and spanned nearly every county in the state. The documents requested — including e-mail messages, cell phone bills, personnel files and travel expenses — are all public records under Florida law.

The audit was the first statewide effort to assess compliance with Florida’s open records law, and included employees and reporters from 30 newspapers.

Many government employees demanded to know the name of the requestor and the organization he or she represented. Some public officials also lied to, harassed and made veiled threats toward requesters, one of whom was nearly arrested, according to an article in The (Lakeland) Ledger on Feb. 7. The Florida Public Records Law provides a requester of public documents the prerogative of anonymity.

City managers had the highest compliance rate, filling requests in accordance to the law 68 percent of the time. The offices of county administrators performed the worst, providing the records only half of the time. Sheriff’s offices (57 percent compliance) and school districts (56 percent) were on par with the overall disclosure mark, according to the audit.

Attorney General Charlie Crist said the results were disappointing, particularly given that Florida prides itself on being a leader in open government. “My hope is that once the results of the audit become known, this will become an educational opportunity,” he said in a Feb. 9 Associated Press article. “It is the people’s government. They have the right to have access.”

Barbara Petersen, president of the Florida First Amendment Foundation, said ignorance of the state’s open records law is largely to blame for the poor compliance rates. She added that FOI training should be provided by the state.

“The audit . . . serves as a wake-up call to government agencies all over the state,” Petersen said.

One of the six state agencies that failed to comply with the public records law was Gov. Jeb Bush’s office. A volunteer requesting e-mail records was told she was required to give her name and address and complete a written request form. According to the Ledger, a Bush spokeswoman denied that the governor’s office had violated the law, instead claiming a misunderstanding had occurred.

“I don’t think [they] misunderstood,” Petersen said.

Audit organizers determined an hour to be a reasonable amount of time to be given access — or receive confirmation the records would be provided at a later date. One hour represented the average lunch break of a person who might seek public records. If no assurance of disclosure was given within one hour, the agency was considered not to be in compliance with the law.

Florida law simply states that records must be made available to the requester within a “reasonable time.”

AB


© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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