I’m a journalist and I love public records.
That’s my bias.
But even non-journalists should love public records, too. Without public records, you couldn’t find out how much your house sold for in the past. You wouldn’t know if there is a robber or rapist in your neighborhood. And you wouldn’t know if your child’s teacher had some unsavory past. Without public records, you would have no way of knowing if that nice mayoral candidate took money from developers or not. You wouldn’t know about the huge skyscraper or strip mall being planned for that vacant lot across the street. Without public records … you get the idea. Public records are not just the tools journalists use to get you important information — in many ways, public records are the tools for keeping this democracy, well, democratic.
So why is it that every year the lawmakers up in Tallahassee try to chip away at the Sunshine Laws little by little, hoping we won’t notice?
This session, several legislators from both sides of the aisle are attempting to gain several exemptions to public record laws. A few have decent, if wrong, arguments surrounding them; other bills are completely ridiculous.
Take SB 166. Sponsored by Democrat Jeremy Ring, this bill would create a public record exemption for the name, address and phone number of any donor to a publicly-owned building. According to an analysis by Florida Senate staff, the current law has a “chilling effect” on people donating to public buildings, because the donors are worried people will steal their identities or threaten their safety.
The analysis goes on to say that this harm greatly outweighs any public benefits. I disagree. I think the public should know if some person — say, a developer — decides to donate several thousand to the construction of a state or city-owned facility. Why would such a person donate money to a public building if not expecting something in return?
The recent news about former House speaker Ray Sansom should give us a pause before passing SB 166.
Next, SB 1044. This bill, proposed by Democrat Chris Smith, wants to block public access to a little-known state database tracking all vacant and abandoned property. I understand Smith’s reasoning: criminals can currently access this database and that puts these properties at risk for vandalism or burglary. Of course, the same thing can be said for the Yellow Pages, or newspaper articles about a shopping mall closing, etc.
The real purpose of the Vacant or Abandoned Real Property Registration, Maintenance and Foreclosure Reporting Act was to give mortgage lenders, city and state officials and other interested parties access to a database of abandoned property so they could take steps to make sure these homes were maintained and looked after. With all the cuts in local and state budgets, limiting access to this registry to just state or local officials could prevent such work. Neighborhood associations and just neighbors should be able to see what vacant houses are in their areas so they can keep an eye out. Not to mention, journalists should also have access to this information for real estate related stories.
Yes, limiting access to the database might prevent some criminals from targeting such properties, but it could also prevent the good guys from keeping watch over these same properties.
Now here’s one of the worst proposed exemptions to public records law: SB 1260.
This bill, proposed by Democrat Anthony Hill, would prevent public schools and colleges from providing the names, addresses, phone numbers and employment status of teachers, administrators and school board members.
I’ll let the Florida Society of News Editors take this one:
The exemption would make it extremely difficult for parents to investigate their children’s public schools. And the proposed law would have hindered a recent series by the St. Petersburg Times about government employees who earn both a paycheck and a state pension – so-called double dippers. The legislation would have made it impossible to see how many educators were double-dipping.
Another article on Sb 1260 says the bill is so broad it could prevent schools from releasing the names of its superintendents, staff and teachers.
I keep going on and on. SB 636, 584, 1488. Laws that would allow some people to stay anonymous on voter rolls and laws that would prevent reporters’ access to crime scenes for their own investigations. Some bills don’t even have specific language yet, only a vague subject.
According to the First Amendment Foundation, there are about 52 bills seeking to close the public’s access to public records. That’s a dizzying amount. As one advocate said:
Lawmakers sometimes overreact to an isolated or hypothetical situation and the response is like using a bazooka to attack the problem when a fly swatter would suffice.
(Read about my rating system here.)