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Thursday, Apr 19, 2018
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Secrecy on legislative agenda

TALLAHASSEE — Every year, state lawmakers try to make more public information secret.

Legislators already have filed dozens of bills creating exemptions to the state’s open records law, widely considered the best in the country.

“Florida is proud to lead the nation in providing public access to government meetings and records,” Attorney General Pam Bondi says on her open-government Web page. “Government must be accountable to the people.”

But lawmakers continually chip away at that openness, usually in the name of privacy or security.

There are roughly 300 exemptions to the public records and open meetings statutes, known as “sunshine laws,” though a “sunset” provision allows for exemptions to expire after five years unless renewed.

Among the bills filed for the upcoming legislative session starting March 4, some would make secret:

The names of people applying to be president, provost or dean of a state university or college.

Email addresses obtained by tax collectors to send paperless tax notices.

Photos of license plates shot by automated license plate recognition systems, such as those used on toll roads.

Meetings of collegiate direct-support organizations such as “booster” clubs when discussing “the identity of a donor or prospective donor.”

The names of people who apply for concealed-weapon licenses at tax collectors’ offices. The exemption already applies to those who file directly to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

The First Amendment Foundation, based in Tallahassee, serves as a watchdog for proposed exceptions to the records law.

Barbara A. Petersen, the foundation’s president and a lawyer, is “neutral” on many in this crop of bills, though some have merited letters of concern from her to their sponsors.

The college job application exemption is one of them.

Last year, Florida university system Chancellor Frank Brogan was hired as head of Pennsylvania’s university system. The move came as a surprise because that state’s Sunshine Act allows officials to choose to keep the search process secret.

It was the first time in the system’s 31 years that a search had been closed to public review.

Rep. Dave Kerner, D-Lake Worth, is sponsoring a similar exemption here.

He said “many, if not most, applicants” already have a job and it “could jeopardize their current positions if it were to become known that they were seeking employment elsewhere.”

Keeping identities public “could have a chilling effect on the number and quality of applicants available,” he said in the bill. His measure would also close interviews and related meetings to the public.

Petersen doesn’t buy it.

“Florida’s universities have had great success hiring university and college presidents in the sunshine,” she wrote in a letter to Kerner. “In fact, (the exception) presumes that our current presidents, provosts and deans are not the best they could be.”

In fact, there’s a hidden benefit to public disclosure.

“If I’m the provost at a college in Utah and I apply to be a provost in Florida, the fact of my application becomes a public record,” Petersen said.

“It could be reported (in the news) and that might put my job in jeopardy,” she added. “But it also might get me a raise because my current employer doesn’t want to lose me.”

She also objected to the measure sponsored by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, exempting email addresses held by tax collectors.

That exception is needed because “such 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 explained in the bill.

Petersen, however, says there’s no evidence that email addresses themselves lead to identity theft.

The problem with many exemptions is that they’re the beginning of a slippery slope, as she put it. If names of college president applicants are made confidential, it’s a short jump to shutting out the public from city manager searches, for example.

Moreover, having to edit more and more information from the public record “adds to the cost of obtaining records and adds to the delay of getting them,” Petersen said. “It’s a huge problem.”

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