NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · FLORIDA · Freedom of Information · June 22, 2006
Gov. Bush vetoes records-requests response bill
June 22, 2006 · Gov. Jeb Bush Tuesday vetoed a bill to improve Florida’s response to public records requests, a measure that was spurred by an incident involving his press office and which passed the Legislature with near unanimous support.
Florida H.B. 1097 would have required an agency head who appoints a designee to act as a custodian of records to notify the public of this designation and prevent persons who are not the custodian or a designee from denying the existence of a record or misleading anyone about the existence of the record. The legislation would have required custodians to respond to requests “promptly and in good faith.”
The legislation, which was approved 38-0 in the Senate and 117-1 in the House, was introduced after Gov. Bush’s press office on three occasions in November denied the existence of a proposal to restructure a school voucher program, The Palm Beach Post reported. One of Bush’s deputy chiefs of staff later admitted to the newspaper — after being contacted directly by the reporter requesting the documents — that she had the 11-page plan.
The veto will not have a major impact on access to public records in Florida because it would have codified existing case law, according to Barbara Petersen, executive director of the Florida First Amendment Foundation.
“I think the bill was well-intentioned,” she said. “It was meant to address a very real and ongoing problem that we have, and I was very disappointed that the governor decided to veto it.”
In his veto letter, Bush said the bill would make inadequately defined changes to the public records law and result in litigation without improving access to public records. Bush expressed concern that providing notice of the records designee would lead the public to believe all records requests must come through that individual, contrary to current law which says a request for records can be served on any public employee.
Bush also wrote that the bill confuses the standard for response to a public record request under Section 119.07(1)(a) of Florida law. “Existing law balances the importance of the public’s right to access records in a timely manner, the complexity of a record request, and the necessity of redacting those portions of a record which are confidential or exempt,” the letter read. “This bill would reopen this entire body of law with little legislative discussion or guidance.”
Bush wrote that the use of the word “promptly” in the legislation could reopen the reasonableness standard already defined under the bill. “I am not comfortable requiring Florida’s state and local agencies to set aside their primary missions to comply with a new, but undefined, time standard for responding to public records requests, notwithstanding any other statutory deadlines, emergencies, or public records requests that may compete for the time of the agency’s employees,” Bush wrote.
Petersen disagreed with the governor’s interpretation of “prompt” in the legislation, saying that a prompt response would refer simply to an initial reply to a request, while those responding to requests would still have a reasonable amount of time to respond with the records. The Florida open records law does not establish a definite time period during which officials must respond to a request.
Alan Gomez, a statehouse reporter for the Post, acknowledged that Florida’s public records law is one of the strongest in the nation.
“Clearly we are already starting in a very beneficial position,” Gomez said. “But as instances like this show, it sometimes may need some clarifying.”
(H.B. 1097) — PS