Every year the Florida Legislature can’t seem to resist whittling away at the state’s public records laws. This year is no different. A handful of bills seek exemptions from public records for voters’ email addresses and for public-school teachers’ evaluations.
• House Bill 249 (Senate Bill 1260) would exempt voters’ email addresses from becoming public in a state agency’s records.
The sponsors maintain they are trying to prevent voter fraud, but we’re stumped as to what type of fraud might occur. State agencies already make clear that email addresses are public records, and the state’s Electronic Mail Communications Act of 2004 gives Floridians a way to contact the agency by phone or mail to have the email address removed from public record without, of course, making the communication itself secret.
Would every public agency need to access the state’s voter registration database so that bureaucrats could determine if that email belongs to a voter? What for?
And would this mean that emails from residents not eligible to vote would remain public but voters’ emails would not? Again, what for?
This legislation seems to be a round-about way to delay public information from being released — one more assault on Floridians’ constitutional rights to know what their government is doing without long delays and hefty charges.
• Another bill, HB 7161, seeks to keep the evaluation of public-school teachers private as it relates to a “value added” formula. In a case involving the Florida Times-Union’s public records request for teacher evaluations, a judge ruled last month that the information should remain secret for at least four years.
Value-added information takes into account a student’s actual learning growth in the FCAT versus the expected growth based on previous academic performance. A teacher’s value-added score is based on the three most recent years of performance. The legislation seeks to delay the release of that information for another year.
The Legislature should let the courts weigh in as the Times-Union is appealing the circuit judge’s ruling. The Jacksonville newspaper argues that if the FCAT is public and the value-added formula is also public, then why keep the teachers’ assessment of performance private? Good question.
• A few rays of sunshine also are emerging during this session on public records:
The Senate has approved legislation that would make it easier for the public to track state government contracts and spending.
A House bill, HB 23, would ensure that public meetings by local governments, such as county commissions or school boards, would indeed include public feedback. It would give a “reasonable opportunity” for the public to speak before an elected or appointed board takes an official action. And it would give circuit courts the jurisdiction to enforce the law if members of the public are not allowed to speak at public hearings. Good.
Two decades ago Floridians overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment for open government. Yet today Florida ranks near the bottom of 50 states in transparency and at the top in corruption — and it’s no secret that the Legislature is responsible for that dismal record. Time to let the sunshine in.