NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · FLORIDA · Freedom of Information · March 21, 2006
School records most difficult to obtain in state records audit
March 21, 2006 · An audit by Florida news organizations showed that 42 percent of government agencies violated open records laws by not complying with public records requests for information ranging from e-mail messages between public officials to logs of calls to sheriffs departments.
Volunteers from 41 news organizations in Florida requested records from 268 agencies and four state agencies. Fifty of those agencies are not included in the results because the agency did not have the records or the auditor did not follow protocol set by the audit.
All four state agencies that were audited complied with record requests for e-mail messages from officials in Gov. Jeb Bush’s administration for a week in February; a report on calls made to the Department of Elder Affairs’ Elder HelpLine; and January travel expense records for the attorney general and chief financial officer of the Department of Financial Services.
School districts were the least compliant, releasing records only 49 percent of the time, while county offices released records 69 percent of the time. Auditors requested e-mail and other correspondence between the top administrator and members of the elected body in school districts, municipalities and county governments.
Logs of calls within the past 48 hours to sheriff department dispatch centers were released 55 percent of the time.
Even though statewide compliance was 58 percent, open records advocates aren’t calling it a victory.
Compared with audits in other states, Florida’s rate of compliance doesn’t seem too bad, said Adria Harper, director of Florida’s First Amendment Foundation, which organized the audit. “But considering it’s compliance with a constitutional right of access, 58 percent isn’t that great.”
The audit “again shows public officials sworn to obey the law either don’t know, or refuse to obey, state law directly related to their own jobs,” said Bill Chamberlin, director of the Marion Brechner Citizen Access Project at the University of Florida. The Citizen Access Project rates state access laws on a 7-point scale, with 7 being “completely open” with maximum access to government information. Florida’s constitutional provisions for access to government are rated a 6 for “mostly open.”
Under the rules of the audit, volunteers were “to behave as regular citizens.” Requesters do not have to identify themselves by giving a name, reason for the request, or submitting a written request. However, 18 percent of the agencies audited asked for a written records request and 16 percent asked for the requester’s name.
“A major problem continues to be the intimidation created by frequent questions about personal information, questions that are prohibited by law,” Chamberlin said.
Some of the problems can be solved by education and training, Harper said. “I think a lot of public employees are conscious of public records laws but they’re not always sure how to implement them. . . . I don’t think a lot of the issues were motivated by ill will. I don’t think they were purposely trying to violate the public records.”
The employees may say it’s more efficient to have a request in writing, but the bottom line is that citizens aren’t required to file a written request, Harper said. “We don’t want any barriers to their access. It can be intimidating when you go into a public agency to request a record and you want to keep your identity unknown.”
The audit results are similar to the 2004 audit, when agencies complied with requests only 43 percent of the time.
Regular audits are needed, Chamberlin said. “We need to remind the officials and the public that laws are being violated and the average citizens are being denied information they have the right to.”
Among responses to the records requests:
* An employee at the Citrus County School District kept asking if the requester was with the newspaper.
* An employee at the Hardee County Sheriff’s office told the requester “that’s not for you to see” when the log of calls made to the dispatch center was requested.
* An employee at the Madison County Sheriff’s Office asked the requester’s name and purpose, adding that a written request must be filed at the courthouse and that the log would have redacted information.
* At the Union County School District, the requester received the records on a computer disk in less than five minutes.
* At one agency, the requester asked for e-mail records from certain employees, Harper said. The employee actually “came down to help her facilitate the request,” and it was uncomfortable for the requester.
Some county officials called the First Amendment Foundation after the audit was released, wanting to know what they could do better. Harper said the organization is going to contact the counties with several violations and offer to teach a free seminar.
“I think we can certainly help those agencies that are willing to learn and willing to improve,” Harper said. “A lot of the problems can be solved by training.”