Are we in the sunshine?

Local representatives graded on how they voted on open government bills

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Being the Sunshine State doesn’t just mean the forecast is always sunny. It means our government is out in the open; in the sunshine.

It all started in 1909, when Florida’s Public Records Law was passed to provide that any records made or received by any public agency in the course of official business are available for inspection.

There are exemptions to these laws determined by the Florida Legislature.

As open government laws have evolved, so have their exceptions.

“It’s worse than it’s ever been before,” said Barbara Petersen, the president of the First Amendment Foundation. “One thing that deeply concerns me is we’ve seen no successful reform to the public records laws in 25 years.”

The last significant change, according to Petersen, was a 1995 act allowing access to public records electronically and not requiring a fee for those records.

The Sunshine Scorecard was released this week, grading our state legislators on how much they support government transparency via their voting record last session.

Legislators were graded on a total of 19 bills, which were determined by the Florida Society of News Editors based on laws tracked by the Florida First Amendment Foundation.

Petersen thinks legislators’ attitudes towards open government have changed. “It’s like we’re bothering them,” she said, claiming the legislature passes roughly 10 open government exemptions annually.

“The legislature is passing these exemptions without much consideration on the impact they have, not just on the people who want those records, but also the custodians of records,” she said, with the more exemptions passed causing more work for those custodians.

The highest grade obtained by our local legislators was a B by Sen. Joe Gruters (R-Sarasota), while the lowest local grade was a D- to Sen. Ben Albritton (R-Bartow). Rep. Michael Grant (R-Port Charlotte) received a C- and Rep. James Buchanan (R-Osprey) received a C.

“Everybody has the opportunity to improve,” Petersen said, hoping to start seeing “more champions and more people supporting the public’s right to oversee their government.”

Legislators are given three points for a vote, seven points for co-sponsoring a bill and 10 points for sponsoring a bill. Votes for these bills gain points, while votes against these bills lose points.

“I personally view scorecards like this to be inaccurate as it relates to specifics, it only relates to generalities,” Albritton told the Sun. “The world isn’t as perfect as these scorecards would like us to believe it is … I stand beside each of these votes because they were the right thing to do.”

“I work very hard to keep government as transparent as possible,” he continued. “But sometimes you have to protect a vulnerable class … the applicability of the First Amendment has to find balance with the ultimate goals to have a civil society … There is lots of information about banking and health care that has interaction with the government. We should be careful about wishing for everybody’s everything to be public.”

“I chose to take those votes to protect individuals and that includes children and law enforcement,” he said.

Albritton was unavailable to comment on each bill. Buchanan declined to comment.

Here are the bills our representatives had a hand in, and their reasons:

SB 248: Exemption/ Home Addresses

Exempting personal identifying and location information on active and former civilian personnel employed by a law enforcement agency, spouses and children, from public records requirements.

Result: Chapter No. 2019-12; companion bills passed (HB 7009).

  • Sen. Ben Albritton voted YES twice (-6 points)
  • Sen. Joe Gruters voted YES (-3 points): “(This bill) provided additional peace of mind for personnel who are involved in sensitive situations. Given the information I received on this bill, it made sense to create this exemption and protect personnel who assist those in protecting our communities.”
  • Rep. Michael Grant voted YES (-3 points): “I was dinged for protecting the private addresses of police officers and Sheriff’s deputies … If I get dinged for that, I’m proud of my score.”
  • Rep. James Buchanan voted YES (-3 points)

HB 407: Public Records — Civil Actions

Prohibits agency that receives a request to inspect or copy records from responding by filing a civil action against individual or entity making the request.

Result: Died in the Governmental Oversight and Accountability Committee.

  • Rep. Michael Grant voted YES (+3 points): “That’s a part of legitimate transparency. We don’t want individual citizens getting sued for asking for information.”
  • Rep. James Buchanan voted YES (+3 points)

SB 602: Public Records — Civil Actions

Requiring a court to assess the reasonable costs of enforcement against an agency in an action that certain records are not subject to a public records exemption.

Result: Died in the Judiciary Committee.

  • Sen. Ben Albritton voted YES (+3 points)

HB 759: Public Records — Agency Contracts

Removes or revises numerous provisions relating to exemptions from public records requirements for trade secrets.

Result: Died in Commerce and Tourism Committee, companion bills passed (HB 7091 and HB 7097).

  • Rep. Michael Grant voted YES (+3 points): “That was a part of a much bigger bill … I couldn’t care less whether I got a plus or a minus on that. The bill was overall good for the state of Florida, therefore I would’ve voted for it anyway.”
  • Rep. James Buchanan voted YES twice (+6 points)

SB 1416: Public Records — Agency Contracts

Certain information related to agency contracts is not confidential or exempt from public records requirements; deleting a provision exempting trade secrets held by local government agencies from public records requirements; repealing a provision relating to a public records exemption under the Florida Accidental Release Prevention and Risk Management Planning Act.

Result: Died in Commerce and Tourism Committee. Companion bills passed (HB 7091).

  • Sen. Joe Gruters voted YES and sponsored (+13 points): “The public has the right to know certain information and people are taking advantage of trade secret laws … This issue was highlighted after Visit Florida said that the amount paid to Pitbull (the rapper) for his work in Florida was a trade secret but it extends to many other agencies and organizations.”

SB 1622: Exemption/Foster Parents & Applicants

Providing an exemption from public records requirements for the names of foster parents applicants and licensed foster parents, names of spouses, minor children and adult household members.

Result: Died on calendar.

  • Sen. Ben Albritton voted YES (-3 points)

HB 7033: OGSR/Family Trust Companies

Removes scheduled repeal of exemption relating to certain information held by OFT (Office of Financial Regulation) relating to family trust companies.

Result: Chapter No. 2019-31

  • Sen. Ben Albritton voted YES (-3 points)
  • Sen. Joe Gruters voted YES (-3 points): “This bill provides an additional layer of protection related to personal identifying information that could be targeted and used negatively for numerous reasons. As these are private companies, I agreed that the provision should not be repealed this year.”
  • Rep. Michael Grant voted YES (-3 points): “There was a concern from some folks about family information or personal information regarding their trust funds being sent out to newspapers and that was probably the issue.”
  • Rep. James Buchanan voted YES (-3 points)

SB 7056: OGSR/Family Trust Companies — Office of Financial Regulation

Amending provisions relating to an exemption from public records requirements for certain information held by the Office of Financial Regulation relating to family trust companies, licensed family trust companies and foreign licensed family trust companies.

Result: Laid on table, companion bill passed (HB 7033).

  • Sen. Ben Albritton voted YES (-3 points)
  • Sen. Joe Gruters missed the vote (0 points)

HB 7125: Administration of Justice

Administrative sealing of criminal history records; providing for reallocation of unencumbered funds returned to the Crime Stoppers Trust Fund.

Result: Chapter No. 2019-167

  • Sen. Ben Albritton voted YES (-3 points)
  • Sen. Joe Gruters voted YES (-3 points): “While several important changes were made, I was proud to cast my vote for this bill because it contained two pieces of legislation I advocated for. HB 7125 included the Crime Stoppers Trust Fund reallocation and criminal penalties for the disclosure of certain privileged communications and now allows a Veterinarian to report suspected criminal violations to authorities.”
  • Rep. Michael Grant voted YES twice (-6 points): “The exemption was apart of a bigger bill that dealt with policy … The policy was more important than this private entity (Sunshine Scorecard scorers) desiring to have more information out there.”
  • Rep. James Buchanan voted YES twice (-6 points)

Originally published in the Charlotte Sun on Oct. 5, 2019.

Click here to view the published article.

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