April Shine On – Monthly Chat with First Amendment Foundation
Barbara Petersen with the Florida First Amendment Foundation is back! Last month she addressed how much an agency can charge for different documents. This month, we ask her about access to personnel records and what she thinks the State of Florida could be doing to make local and state governments more transparent and open.
Let us know what you could use some help with, when it comes to the Florida Sunshine Laws. You can leave questions and comments below or send them to VP of Programs Lynn Walsh.
SPJ South Florida: How accessible should personnel files be for government employees? Is it reasonable to think I should just be able to walk in and view a file without a lot of notice and/or charges?
Barbara Petersen: There is no general personnel exception under Florida’s public records law. Having said that, there are a fair number of exemptions for specific information contained in personnel records – social security numbers, medical information, and direct deposit records, for example. Although home addresses of government employees are generally subject to disclosure, the home addresses of some employees such as judges and law enforcement officers are protected.
The public records law says if a record contains both exempt and non-exempt information, the custodial agency must redact (delete) that which is exempt and provide access to the remainder. Thus, the ability to simply walk in and request to inspect a personnel file may depend on the employee and length of service – the longer the service, the bigger the file and the longer it may take to review for exempt information and make the necessary redactions.
Regardless, personnel records are routinely requested, and you shouldn’t have to wait too long to obtain a copy of a personnel file. And depending again on the size of the file, the fees may vary.
Generally, an agency can’t charge for the mere inspection of a public record. But the Attorney General has said that if review and redaction of a public requires an extensive use of agency resources, the agency can charge a reasonable fee based on actual costs incurred. If an agency charges for the extensive use of personnel time, the charge can be no more than the hourly rate (including benefits) of the lowest paid person capable of performing the task. If you’re asking for a copy of personnel file, the agency can charge $0.15 per page for paper copies (or the actual cost of duplication if you want the record in an electronic format) plus an extensive use fee if applicable. I would suggest making a request for a personnel file at least a day or two before you’d like to inspect or copy the record.
SPJ South Florida: What’s one thing you believe Florida should do to make government more open and/or accessible?
Barbara Petersen: I have a list as long as my arm! First and foremost, I would like the Legislature to strengthen the enforcement mechanisms under the law. Currently, there’s no one agency in Florida responsible for enforcing our constitutional right of access to public records, which means it’s incumbent upon a requestor to enforce compliance by filing suit in civil court.
I would like to see the open government mediation program run by the Attorney General made mandatory – that would be a good first step. Also, the fee provision in the public records law needs to be fixed. While $0.15 per page seems reasonable if you’re wanting a paper copy, extensive use fees imposed by some agencies are exorbitant and can become an effective barrier to public access.
Click here In case you missed last month’s chat.
Answers to these questions and many more, including questions about application of Florida’s open meetings law, can be found in the 2013 Government-in-the-Sunshine Manual, which is now available in both a print edition and electronically. Go to the First Amendment Foundation website and click on FAF Store for information on how to order the manual.
Barbara A. Petersen, President First Amendment Foundation
A graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia and Florida State University College of Law, Barbara A. Petersen is president of Florida’s First Amendment Foundation. Before taking her current position in 1995, Petersen was staff attorney for the Joint Committee on Information Technology Resources of the Florida Legislature, where she worked exclusively on public records legislation and issues. A passionate advocate of the public’s right to oversee its government, Petersen is the author of numerous reports and articles on open government issues. She currently sits on the board of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, having served as its president and treasurer, and was recently appointed to the Integrity Florida board of directors. Petersen served as chair of Florida’s Commission on Open Government Reform.