For more than 100 years, Florida has the nation’s most comprehensive open records and meetings laws, now collectively known as the Sunshine Law. It guarantees meetings of elected officials are open to the public and ensures access to public records, such as meeting minutes and court documents. Over the years, though, the Legislature has repeatedly chipped away at the integrity of the Sunshine Law by passing laws creating exemptions.
Some exemptions are appropriate and defensible. For example, home phone numbers and addresses of public safety officials, prosecutors and judges are exempt. With the tragic rash of killing of district attorneys, prosecutors and prison officials in Texas and Colorado, it’s easy to see why their personal information should be protected. Likewise, information about patients receiving treatment at public hospitals is exempt.
Other exemptions are self-serving, such as multiple exemptions the Legislature has granted itself over the years. Even when exemptions aren’t created by the Legislature, such as lobbyist disclosure regulations, enforcement is weak or nonexistent , enabled the $127-million-a-year lobbying industry to darkly dabble in policy- and law-making.
One more exemption would be added to more than 200 already on the books if a pair of bills working their way through the Legislature are passed and signed by Gov. Rick Scott. The proposed exemption would apply to email addresses of all registered voters and voter registration applicants. We join with the First Amendment Foundation and the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors who have urged the Legislature abandon or modify this unnecessary exemption.
In a letter to Senate President Dan Gaetz, FAF President Barbara Peterson objected that the exemption “applies to the email addresses of all registered voters ... and would exempt from disclosure the email addresses of all public officials ... as well as the email addresses of all government employees who are registered voters or voter registrant applicants. If this exemption is allowed to pass, we will not be able to see who our public officials are communicating with, virtually shutting down any opportunity for public oversight and accountability.”
Peterson sent a similar letter to House Speaker Will Weatherford regarding the House version of the proposed bill.
The email address issue is dependent on the passage of another measure requiring a redesign of the voter application that would allow voters to receive sample ballots by email. Currently email addresses are not part of voter registration records and no state law requires a would-be voter to have an email address or a phone number. While the redesign is billed as a paperwork reduction measure, Peterson said the email address exemption will create a “bureaucratic nightmare” by requiring the redaction of email addresses from public records requests.
We have no problem if voters want to receive sample ballots by email, but the unintended consequences created by the email exemption negates any unquantified savings or efficiencies produced by the application redesign. It also highlights a flaw in the Sunshine Law that makes it much too easy for the Legislature to undermine the public’s right to know what their government and elected officials are up to.