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Politics / Issues

Florida Grade for Public Access to Information is a D

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Sen. Mike Fasano said "They’ve got to be joking. This can’t be correct” about a reply to his public access of information request.

Florida ranks as a C-minus for its susceptibility to corruption, according to a new study by the Center for Public Integrity, Public Radio International and WLRN in Miami. WLRN reporter Kenny Malone reports on why Florida's Public Access to Information is a D.

A few months back,  Senator Mike Fasano (R) who represents parts of Central Florida's counties,  had a pretty simple public records request about some investments that were made by the state board of administration.

That’s the state agency that oversees more than $100 billion in pensions and other public funds.

Fasano was trying to figure out why the board had invested a bunch of money in this one particular hedge fund.

Fasano thought, "That’s a public record and at the time we just thought it would be extremely easy and quick to get."

So Fasano sends off a request and pretty quickly, he gets an email response.

"So shocking to us, that my staff and I looked at each other in almost a laughable state saying: They’ve got to be joking. This can’t be correct.”

Senator Fasano ran head-on into some of the reasons the State Integrity Investigation gives Florida a D for “Public Access to Information.”

The email Fasano was looking at, basically said that answering the question would take months and that Fasano would have to pay a small fortune to cover the labor costs – more than $10,000.

The incident shows that despite Florida’s reputation as an oasis of open information, there are major weaknesses with the state’s Public Records Law.

“Gosh, if a state senator can’t get some simple information, then how would the average citizen ever be able to get a question answered by a state agency?" said Fasano.

Florence Snyder is a long-time media lawyer. “And if they do it to sitting senators, you can imagine what they do to the press," she said.

Snyder says she’s definitely seen a shift in the past two decades - that government agencies used to have lawyers who made information easier to access.

As opposed to now, when it seems the lawyers and public relatioins people find ways to drag their feet.
Snyder says it goes on because there’s nothing to really stop it.

“People…Well, a public official getting ticketed for obstructing a soccer mom in her pursuit of information about how the bake sale money got spent," she said, "stands a high likelihood good of not getting caught.”

By far the biggest reason Florida earned a D in the investigation is that the state doesn’t have a full-time agency to enforce the Public Records Law.

The closest that Florida comes is the Attorney General’s Open Government Office. It can help mediate public records disputes. But it can’t initiate investigations or impose penalties for public records violations.

Pat Gleason heads up that office and stands behind Florida’s process.

“I’m surprised that our rating would have been that low," Gleason said. "There are always areas where we can improve, but I think that overall, the laws in this state reflect a commitment to the importance of public access.”

Gleason said Florida’s laws are still some of the best in the country.

Mike Fasano, the senator who put in the public records quest, doesn’t necessarily agree. He had to raise a ruckus, but he did manage to get the documents he wanted -without paying $10,000.

When they arrived though, he learned something else about the Florida Public Records Law- there are a lot of exemptions.

He still doesn’t know why Florida invested in the hedge fund because so much of the information in the documents was blacked out.