TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Legislature will have to balance privacy and openness in 2015 as members again have filed bills creating exemptions to the state’s public records law, still considered the nation’s best.
Lawmakers so far have filed close to a dozen bills that would create or expand open records exemptions, keeping certain information secret.
Among them are measures that have been filed before, including an effort to close searches for public university presidents and another that would cloak taxpayers’ email addresses.
Legislators begin meeting in committees the week of Jan. 5, and the annual 60-day legislative session kicks off March 3.
The number of exemptions to the state’s public records and open meetings statutes, known collectively as Sunshine Laws, has risen from 250 in 1985 to over 1,000 today, according to Barbara Petersen, president of Florida’s First Amendment Foundation, a nonprofit watchdog group.
A “sunset” provision allows for exemptions to expire after five years unless renewed.
Petersen said lawmakers are quick to file loopholes but slow to pass legislation that would strengthen the law.
“They fail year after year after year to pass any reform legislation,” she said, noting a recent measure that, among other things, would have required state agencies to train their employees on the public records law.
For the 2015 session, one bill (SB 182) would make confidential any information about candidates for president, dean or provost of a state university or college.
It was filed by state Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla. A similar, unsuccessful measure was sponsored last session by state Rep. Dave Kerner, D-Lake Worth.
This year’s bill also would close interviews and related meetings from public view, though it would keep open any meeting on how much the position will pay.
“Many, if not most, applicants for such a position are currently employed at another job at the time they apply and disclosure of their applications could jeopardize their current positions,” Hays says in the bill.
That’s the same argument employed before in favor of carving out an exemption. But there’s no better argument against the bill, Petersen said, than the recent search for a new Florida State University president.
Without an open process, “we would not have known that the only real candidate had not even bothered to apply,” she said, referring to former state Sen. John Thrasher, who eventually became the school’s president.
Using the state’s public records law, The Associated Press was able to get emails showing how a consultant warned the head of the search committee that the university was trying to “concoct a competitive process.”
Other emails showed that Thrasher had contacted top FSU officials about his interest in the presidency, and that Gov. Rick Scott’s former campaign manager offered his own advice about the search.
State Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, also has revived a bill (SB 200) that would prohibit the disclosure of taxpayers’ email addresses kept by county tax collectors.
Latvala pushed the measure last year; it passed the Senate but died in the House, records show.
Email addresses “are unique to the individual and, when combined with other personal identifying information, can be used for identity theft, taxpayer scams, and other invasive contacts,” Latvala said in that bill.
“The public availability of personal e-mail addresses invites and exacerbates thriving and well-documented criminal activities and puts taxpayers at increased risk of harm,” he added.
There’s no evidence that email addresses themselves lead to identity theft, Petersen says, especially if a person’s address doesn’t include his or her name.
At least one bill filed (HB 4003) would get rid of a public records exemption, that for the identity of executioners.
State Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee, filed a 36-page proposal to repeal the state’s death penalty.
In it, she also deletes an exemption as to “information which identifies an executioner, or any person prescribing, preparing, compounding, dispensing or administering a lethal injection.”
“If we’re proud of (capital punishment), let’s be upfront about what’s going on,” she said. “There are too many exemptions as it is, and there certainly shouldn’t be death in the dark.”