Florida has long been known for “government-in-the-sunshine” – laws that promote transparency and the public’s right to know about elected officials, open meetings and public records.
But open meetings and public records have become oxymorons as the Florida Legislature this session has been moving to create more secrecy than sunshine.
The nonprofit First Amendment Foundation in the state capital has been tracking 111 bills that would create new exemptions or extend current exemptions to open meetings and public records laws, according to president Barbara Petersen.
That means a government meeting could be closed to the public and people wouldn’t know what’s going on. Or residents wouldn’t be able to see public records because they’ll be hidden from view. Or reporters couldn’t access information to hold government accountable or unveil corruption.
The proposed exemptions in the 111 bills relate to court records, colleges and universities, ethics and elections, investigations and examinations, home addresses, licensing information, personal information, proprietary information, public meetings, public records, public safety and security, transparency, and voter information, according to the foundation’s tracking.
And if many of those exemptions get approved by the state House and Senate this session, they’d add to more than 1,122 exemptions already in the law.
Petersen says there haven’t been comprehensive reforms to bolster transparency laws for nearly 25 years.
Instead, “All we’ve done is chip away” from government-in-the-sunshine, Petersen says.
And Florida isn’t alone.
Adam Marshall is a staff attorney at the Washington D.C.-based Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. He says the array of new exemptions in open government laws “is a huge problem,” not only for citizens but for reporters who seek public information.
Public records laws, for example, start from a presumption of openness but eventually lead to exemptions, he says. There’s usually a reason for an exemption – maybe somebody gets upset and talks to their lawmaker about an exemption. That can end up as a piece of legislation.
Exemptions can vary across states and it can be hard to quantify all of them. But it is fair to say that there’s a “continued clamping down on openness” across states, Marshall says.
In Florida, the lack of government transparency isn’t just about the wording of a piece of legislation. It’s about the rushed atmosphere that provides little information as the legislative session begins to wind down and lawmakers scramble to get their bills approved.
At the House Appropriations Committee meeting on Tuesday, people were in the audience, so by no means was it a closed meeting of some kind.
But Republican state Rep. Paul Renner told the audience, “I’m going to move very quickly over the high points of the criminal justice reform package.”
The legislation had grown to 264 pages, but Renner took only about one minute to go through it. He’s an attorney and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and he represents Flagler County and parts of St. Johns and Volusia counties.
People in the audience could speak before the committee, but they were told repeatedly by House Appropriations chair W. Travis Cummings to make it brief or simply waive their remarks. Cummings represents part of Clay County in northeast Florida.
One speaker asked about the price tag for the giant criminal justice bill, but committee members never discussed that on Tuesday. In fact, there was no debate at all on the 264-page bill.
The committee members quickly approved it. (The bill needs approval from the House, Senate and the governor before it becomes law.)
Renner mentioned something very briefly in his one-minute description of the bill — about automatic sealing of certain criminal records. That provision was embedded in Section 47 of the big criminal justice bill that the First Amendment Foundation is tracking. It would create new rules that could automatically seal criminal history records in certain cases, such as when someone is acquitted or found not guilty.
Petersen believes this is a dramatic shift in public policy and could pose a serious threat to public safety.
“If Section 47 of HB 7125 were to become law, a person could be charged and tried one or more times for a lewd and lascivious act on a child, for example, and if acquitted or found not guilty because of a lack of evidence, that person would not show up on FDLE’s criminal background check webpage. If that person then applies for a position with a school or day care center, there would be no mention of the charges,” Petersen wrote in a letter to Rep. Renner.
In addition, she wrote: “As we know, there are a host of reasons for acquittals and findings of not guilty, including a lack of evidence or when a witness fails to appear. Many sexual assault victims, for example, do not want to testify in an open courtroom and as a result charges against the defendant can be dropped or, if the case goes to trial, the court may acquit or find the defendant not guilty.”
Also on Tuesday, House Health and Human Services Committee chair Ray Wesley Rodrigues rushed through a bill about exempting the names of certain foster parents – another public records exemption proposed this legislative session.
Rodrigues, a Republican representing part of Lee County, made some quick and significant changes to the bill through an amendment, and the committee approved it.
The new version focuses on foster parents who take in victims of human trafficking, saying those foster parents are at a “heightened risk” because human trafficking is associated with gang activity and violence. The legislation would bar the state from releasing the names of those specific foster parents, as well as the names of spouses, children and other adults in the household.
The First Amendment Foundation has been following the foster parent bills and opposes the widespread exempting of names of foster parents who are licensed and paid by the state to take care of vulnerable foster children. However, Petersen says Rodrigues’ House amendment Tuesday addressed the foundation’s concerns, though there’s still no assurances that the Senate version will be revised.
As to why there’s a concern about keeping foster parents’ names secret, the foundation argues: “We don’t have to look hard to find story after story of foster parents who abused children in their care or instances in which the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) was lax in protecting those children and overseeing those entrusted with their care. Without the names of foster parents and foster parent applicants, the public’s ability to oversee DCF and hold it accountable for its actions, or in some cases inactions, is impermissibly obstructed.”
Dozens more open-government exemption bills have been moving through committees for approval, and it’s not clear in several cases why exemptions are needed.
That includes an exemption for the names of applicants for presidents or provosts at state universities and colleges – even though Florida has long hired such top academic officials without hiding their names. Opponents of the exemptions say that the names of applicants, as well as their credentials, qualifications and accomplishments, is pertinent public information in academic job searches.
Other bills include expanded exemptions for keeping home addresses a secret; exemptions for certain billing information for public utility information; for certain records related to family trust companies; for certain voter registration information; and for petitions for voluntary or involuntary admission for mental health treatment.