Florida Legislators Have Poor Track With Open Records
Half of Florida's legislators failed or nearly failed in a review of their support for public records and meetings given by Florida newspapers and an open-government group after this year's legislative sessions.
In a "scorecard" produced by the Florida Society of News Editors and based on information provided by Florida's First Amendment Foundation — which tracked a priority list of public records exemptions — the 160 legislators totaled three Fs, 77 Ds, 71 Cs, and 9 Bs.
Each year FSNE completes a project devoted to Sunshine Week, a nationwide initiative to educate the public about the importance of transparent government. This year FSNE members created a scoring system to grade legislators on their introduction of bills and their final votes.
"As an advocate for open government, the grades of course, are disappointing," said Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation , a nonprofit supported mostly by newspapers and broadcasters.
Several lawmakers contacted about their grades questioned the concept of fairly and accurately scoring how they addressed and decided on open records bills.
"It's a little simplistic to think you can reduce this to a mathematical formula. It's a little more complicated," said Rep. Rick Roth, R-Wellington , who has a bachelor's degree in mathematics from Emory University,
Roth, who was graded a D-minus, added, "The Sunshine Law is great in principle, but what it actually assumes is everybody is a crook. I just think it needs a little bit of tweaking."
Florida's Legislature established public records laws as early as the early 20th century, created the Government in the Sunshine Law in the late 1960s, and in 1992 established a "constitutional right of access." Because of Florida's Government in the Sunshine Law, the state's records and meetings are more accessible then in most states. But the Legislature has, year in and year out, instituted, or considered instituting, numerous exemptions. The body, on average, imposes up to a dozen a year.
Petersen said the recent session accounted for "a near record number of new exemptions created, but we see few bills that actually would improve access to either meetings or records."
The 2017 Legislature created 26 exemptions and expanded another, then instituted yet one more exemption during its special session. Should Gov. Rick Scott approve all of the 28 new exemptions, the grand total over the years would be 1,150.
Where does your legislator rank? See the scorecard
The three legislative Fs — actually F-minuses — were assigned to two representatives from southwest Florida and one from the Jacksonville area.
The single lowest score went to Rep. Bob Rommel , R-Naples, who sponsored House Bill 351, which would have made secret records of public college president searches; and House Bill 843, which would have allowed two members of a government board to meet privately. Both bills failed. Rommel also voted on the House floor against government openness in five of seven cases.
Rommel was joined in drawing an F by Rep. Byron Donalds, another Naples Republican; and Kimberly Daniels, a Jacksonville Democrat.
Daniels did not personally return a reporter's call, instead providing a prepared statement that doesn't directly address her grade but says that getting the two public records exemptions passed, as well as four others, as a freshman legislator, "exceeds more than I could have imagined accomplishing."
And all five voted for HB 111, which hides the identification of murder witnesses — Harrell co-sponsored it — as well as SB 118 , which hides criminal histories. Those two bills passed and were signed by Scott.
No legislator earned an A in the same way the others got the Fs. Rep. Joseph Geller, D-Aventura, voted for government openness in six of seven floor votes and earned a B-plus, the same grade given to Rep. Lori Berman, D-Lantana.
Despite his favorable score, Geller is bucking for "at least an A-minus," pointing out that he so frequently asks about the First Amendment Foundation's position on open government bills that he said he "got a pretty bad ribbing about it on the floor from other legislators."
Just six Democrats and three Republicans earned a score of B-minus or better. And 17 Democrats and 63 Republicans drew grades of D-plus or worse.
For Democrats, the most common grade was a C-minus. Dozens of Republicans drew C-minus grades, but more got a D-plus.
Scores in the House were much more likely to be lower than those in the Senate. Some of that may be because of HB 111, which drew nearly two dozen sponsors and co-sponsors in the House. The bill, which hides information about witnesses to murders, was signed by Scott in May.
Roth, of Wellington, defended his position on secrecy for the process of hiring public college presidents, explaining that while he'd be OK with making candidates public once there's a "short list" of finalists, he feared scaring away top-flight candidates who don't want their respective college leadership to know they're shopping for a new position.
On HB 843, dealing with talks between two officials, Roth said he voted for it — in fact he was a co-sponsor — but said it probably went too far and "I'm glad it failed." He said he'd like to see a new bill with conditions that would satisfy opponents — such as requiring staff be present and notes be taken to be made public later. He said he supports trying to head off "skullduggery" but he said many elected bodies now are dominated by staffers who "pretty much drive the bus," and since officials can't talk in advance, "they don't come to the board meeting fully informed."
Roth also noted the bill to protect crime witnesses does require they're eventually identified, and while he didn't remember much of SB 118, he saw a desire to protect the privacy of people who had committed crimes in the past.
The First Amendment Foundation's Petersen did note that, because the scorecard reflects only votes and sponsorship, it might skew perception of legislators' attitudes toward open government.
For example, she said, Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Atlantis, who is in line to become Senate Democratic leader in 2018, "always has something to say about open government when something comes up on the (Senate) floor."
But, she said, "what we would like to see is more awareness from some legislators, and we're hoping that's what this project will do."
She said the last bill that improved access to meetings was pushed three years ago by Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, now Senate President. And, she says, "We haven't seen anything passed by the Legislature to enhance the right of access to public records since 1995. We did see a couple of bills that would improve access, but they didn't even get a committee hearing."
Some South Florida lawmakers also argued the scorecard's narrow focus on open government doesn't leave room for considering good policy.
On HB 111, for example, "It's not that hard of a reach to say this law will keep others from being murdered," says Rep. Evan Jenne , D-Dania Beach, who earned a C-minus. "I realize they (the First Amendment Foundation) are a one-issue, one-note organization. But at a certain point, reality comes crashing in to any philosophy."
And Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, who also earned a C-minus, says, "It's not that I don't respect the First Amendment Foundation. It's that I'm going to do whatever I can do as a legislator to begin to bring justice to individuals who are being murdered senselessly."
Rep. Jared Moskowitz, a Coral Springs Democrat and another of those who earned a C-minus, says, "People are trying to get good grades from these organizations, instead of looking at whether it's fair policy. The only grade that matters is the one that my residents give me when they decide to re-elect me into office."
Two of the top four grades went to Republican senators from Tampa Bay: Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg and Bill Galvano of Bradenton.
"Our goal is that there be a completely transparent and open government," Brandes says. He, along with Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg — who received a B-minus — sponsored legislation that protects court clerks from being sued if they release confidential information due to an error committed by a lawyer involved in a case. Current law isn't clear on the issue.
Diamond called HB 843, the proposal to let two elected officials meet, an "existential threat" to open government in Florida.
Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, who earned a D-plus, supported HB 843.
"In the Legislature, we can meet with another legislator one-on-one, so I thought that the state government shouldn't be treated any differently than the local government," he said.
Thirteen Tampa Bay area lawmakers scored below a C.
"This 'scorecard' was created by a special interest group that thinks legislators should cater to the group's own political agenda rather than do what is in the best interest of the people of Florida," said Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, who scored a D-plus.
Fred Piccolo, a spokesman for House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Lutz — who scored a D-plus — called inclusion of HB 111, the witness-identity bill, in the scorecard, "just plain silly." And Latvala says, "If I have to vote on that bill 100 more times, I will vote 100 more times for that bill."