May Shine On – Monthly Chat with First Amendment Foundation
Barbara Petersen with the Florida First Amendment Foundation is back! Last month she walked us through some important bills in the Florida Legislature relating to government transparency and access to public information.
The legislative session is over, so, this month Shine On will take a look at what was passed and how your rights to access under the Sunshine laws.
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 Lynn Walsh.
2014 Session was one for the books
Each legislative session, the First Amendment Foundation tracks all open government bills filed in the House and Senate. Some of these bills make minor changes to what agencies must post on their websites, for example, but the majority would create new exemptions to the public records and open meetings law.
The 2014 Session was one for the record books – both in terms of the number of open government bills filed and the number of new exemptions created – of the 264 total bills passed by the Legislature, 22 bills created new open government exemptions and nine reenacted existing exemptions under the Open Government Sunset Review Act.
A little math: 12% of all bills passed in the 2014 legislative session were exceptions to our constitutional right of access to government information.
Most of the exemptions created or reenacted are narrow and limited in scope; many were amended and tightened in response to concerns raised by the Foundation. But a couple of bills opposed by the FAF were approved by overwhelming majorities in each chamber.
- House Bill 775: creates a public record exemption for proprietary business information in reports filed with the Florida State Boxing Commission by promoters. Such information is generally protected by various exemptions to the public records law, but HB 775 defines the term “proprietary business information” extremely broadly, and includes both ticket sales and gross receipts. A large number of matches are held in public arenas, and rents can be based on both sales and receipts. It’s hard to understand how disclosure of this information, which must be reported to the Commission, would harm the business interests of the promoters—an assertion used to justify the exemption – is not supported by facts or anecdotal evidence of any sort. House Bill 775 passed the House by a vote of 105/12 and was approved by a unanimous vote of the Senate.
- Senate Bill 1320: passed out of both chambers with only one nay vote, creates a public record exemption for all personal identifying information contained in records relating to family trust companies, including the names of shareholders and members of the trust. Under the bill, the public will have access only to the name of the trust company and the name and address of its registered agent. These companies are overseen by the Office of Financial Regulation; some are licensed by the state and others are not. The need for this cloak of secrecy surrounding family trust companies is unclear – according to the required statement of public necessity, the concern is that public access will “jeopardize the financial safety” of the very wealthy families who create such trust companies. Again, there’s no explanation as to how such wealth will be jeopardized, and the statement of public necessity is woefully insufficient.
On a positive note, a couple of good bills were passed:
- SB 846: enacts some much need ethics reform and expands the open government training requirement for constitutional officers to also include elected city officials.
- SB 1194: increases transparency for many of the state’s citizen support and direct support organizations.
Both bills received unanimous support in both the House and the Senate.
Just as importantly, two proposals opposed by the FAF didn’t pass:
- HB 135: would have closed the search process for university and college presidents to public scrutiny, claiming Florida doesn’t attract the best candidates because of our sunshine laws. The legislation passed the House by a vote of 104/9 and died in Senate Messages.
- Senate Bill 538: would have created an exemption for some – but not all – email addresses obtained by county tax collectors, a logistical nightmare for those seeking access to a tax collector’s email correspondence. The bill was approved unanimously by the Senate and died in House Messages.
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.