State Politics

Half of Florida’s legislators rate ‘F’ or ‘D’ in their support for open records

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, and Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, talk to reporters after a budget conference meeting on May 5.
House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, and Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, talk to reporters after a budget conference meeting on May 5. TAMPA BAY TIMES

Half of Florida’s legislators failed or nearly failed in a review of their support for public records and meetings given by Florida newspapers and an open-government group after this year’s legislative sessions.

In a “scorecard” produced by the Florida Society of News Editors and based on information provided by Florida’s First Amendment Foundation — which tracked a priority list of public records exemptions — the 160 legislators totaled three Fs, 77 Ds, 71 Cs, and 9 Bs.

Where does your legislator rank? See the scorecard

Each year FSNE completes a project devoted to Sunshine Week, a nationwide initiative to educate the public about the importance of transparent government. This year FSNE members created a scoring system to grade legislators on their introduction of bills and their final votes.

“As an advocate for open government, the grades of course, are disappointing,” said Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, a nonprofit supported mostly by newspapers and broadcasters.

Several lawmakers contacted about their grades questioned the concept of fairly and accurately scoring how they addressed and decided on open records bills.

“It’s a little simplistic to think you can reduce this to a mathematical formula. It’s a little more complicated,” said Rep. Rick Roth, R-Wellington, who has a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Emory University,

Roth, who was graded a D-minus, added, “The Sunshine Law is great in principle, but what it actually assumes is everybody is a crook. I just think it needs a little bit of tweaking.”

Florida’s Legislature established public records laws as early as the early 20th century, created the Government in the Sunshine Law in the late 1960s, and in 1992 established a “constitutional right of access.” Because of Florida’s Government in the Sunshine Law, the state’s records and meetings are more accessible then in most states. But the Legislature has, year in and year out, instituted, or considered instituting, numerous exemptions. The body, on average, imposes up to a dozen a year.

Petersen said the recent session accounted for “a near record number of new exemptions created, but we see few bills that actually would improve access to either meetings or records.”

The 2017 Legislature created 26 exemptions and expanded another, then instituted yet one more exemption during its special session. Should Gov. Rick Scott approve all of the 28 new exemptions, the grand total over the years would be 1,150.

The three legislative Fs — actually F-minuses — were assigned to two representatives from southwest Florida and one from the Jacksonville area.

The single lowest score went to Rep. Bob Rommel, R-Naples, who sponsored House Bill 351, which would have made secret records of public college president searches; and House Bill 843, which would have allowed two members of a government board to meet privately. Both bills failed. Rommel also voted on the House floor against government openness in five of seven cases.

Rommel was joined in drawing an F by Rep. Byron Donalds, another Naples Republican; and Kimberly Daniels, a Jacksonville Democrat.

Daniels did not personally return a reporter’s call, instead providing a prepared statement that doesn’t directly address her grade but says that getting the two public records exemptions passed, as well as four others, as a freshman legislator, “exceeds more than I could have imagined accomplishing.”

And all five voted for HB 111, which hides the identification of murder witnesses, as well as SB 118, which hides criminal histories. Those two bills passed and were signed by Scott.

Just six Democrats and three Republicans earned a score of B-minus or better. And 17 Democrats and 63 Republicans drew grades of D-plus or worse.

For Democrats, the most common grade was a C-minus. Dozens of Republicans drew C-minus grades, but more got a D-plus.

Scores in the House were much more likely to be lower than those in the Senate. Some of that may be because of HB 111, which drew nearly two dozen sponsors and co-sponsors in the House.

How South Florida lawmakers fared

Two-thirds of Miami-Dade and Broward lawmakers earned either C-minus or D-plus grades. The C-minuses went to all Democrats, while the D-plus grades went mostly to Republicans, according to the scorecard results.

Rep. Joe Geller, D-Aventura, earned one of only two B-pluses issued statewide under the scorecard, the highest grade any lawmaker received.

Joe Geller
Joe Geller Alexia Fodere Miami Herald File

But Geller took issue that his score wasn’t even higher, passionately arguing he “should be at least an A-minus.”

Geller so frequently asks about the First Amendment Foundation’s position on open government bills that he said he “got a pretty bad ribbing about it on the floor from other legislators.” He also said other lawmakers criticized him for his vote against HB 111 — a new law that was sponsored in the House by two Miami-Dade Democrats that shields murder witnesses’ identities for two years. (Only five other lawmakers besides Geller opposed it.)

Why does the Sunshine grade matter so much to Geller? The public perception behind it, he said.

“I think it makes a difference to the public to see that it’s possible that you can be in elected office and still stand tall and fight consistently for Sunshine and open government,” Geller said. “Saying that nobody got even an A-minus really is counterproductive as far as making a statement to the public that there are people who can and will fight for these issues and are willing to face the consequences of fighting for them.”

“If it wasn’t me, if there was someone who did better — as long as there was someone,” he added.

Many South Florida lawmakers also took issue with their grades and the methodology in how they were calculated. They noted the First Amendment Foundation’s narrow focus on open government doesn’t leave room for considering what the lawmakers argued was sound policy. The major bills lawmakers were graded on were bills the foundation openly opposed — and in some cases, asked Gov. Rick Scott to veto.

Several lawmakers cited their votes in favor of HB 111 as a prime example of “good policy,” even though the new law restricts the public’s access to knowing the identities of individuals who witness a murder.

State Rep. Cynthia Stafford, D-Miami, explains the need for her "witness protection bill," which would shield the identities of murder witnesses for two years after the crime. Kristen M. Clark / Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau

Many South Florida communities — particularly those that are poor and minority — grapple daily with gun violence and the exemption for murder witnesses is intended to help police solve those crimes by enticing witnesses to speak up. The measure was shepherded this session by Miami Democratic Reps. Cynthia Stafford and Kionne McGhee.

McGhee Stafford Williams
From left: Democratic Reps. Patricia Williams of Lauderdale Lakes, Kionne McGhee of Miami, and Cynthia Stafford of Miami confer on the House floor in March. Stafford and McGhee co-sponsored HB 111, shielding murder witnesses’ identities in public records for two years — a measure Gov. Scott ultimately signed into law but the First Amendment Foundation opposed. Florida House

“It’s not that hard of a reach to say this law will keep others from being murdered,” said Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach, who earned a C-minus grade. “I realize they [the First Amendment Foundation] are a one-issue, one-note organization. But at a certain point, reality comes crashing in to any philosophy.”

RELATED: “Legislature gives murder witnesses some protection by shielding their identity”

“We have asked for this bill for years, because we have individuals within our community who don’t tell who shot an individual because they fear being retaliated against,” added Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, who also earned a C-minus. “It’s not that I don’t respect the First Amendment Foundation. It’s that I’m going to do whatever I can do as a legislator to begin to bring justice to individuals who are being murdered senselessly.”

Several lawmakers also defended their votes in favor of SB 118, which similarly cost them points in the Sunshine Scorecard. They emphasized that by prohibiting businesses from profiting off publishing mug shots online and by allowing criminal records of people not ultimately convicted of a crime to be sealed can help remove the stigma individuals feel after being arrested or charged with a crime.

“This bill clamps down on an extortive practice designed to solicit money from people looking to protect their own reputations,” said Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point, who was one of only four South Florida Democrats who earned D-plus grades.

Although the new law would seal millions of criminal history and court records in Florida, Farmer emphasized it does so in instances where “a person is not found guilty and should not bear the burdensome stigma associated with those charges.”

RELATED: “2.7 million criminal records could vanish from public view”

Rep. Jared Moskowitz, a Coral Springs Democrat and another of those who earned a C-minus grade, said he dismisses such rankings by any organization — whether it’s the foundation, the Florida Chamber or the NRA — because he doesn’t consider special interest support when voting on bills.

“They have a specific purpose, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s what my district wants,” Moskowitz said. “These grading things, this is what’s part of the problem: People are trying to get good grades from these organizations, instead of looking at whether it’s fair policy.”

“The only grade that matters is the one that my residents give me when they decide to re-elect me into office,” he added.

None of the several South Florida Republican lawmakers the Miami Herald contacted for comment about their Sunshine Scorecard grades responded to requests.

Tampa grades

Two of the top four grades went to Republican senators from Tampa Bay: Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg and Bill Galvano of Bradenton.

“Our goal is that there be a completely transparent and open government,” Brandes said. He, along with Rep. Ben Diamond , D-St. Petersburg — who received a B-minus — sponsored legislation that protects court clerks from being sued if they release confidential information due to an error committed by a lawyer involved in a case. Current law isn’t clear on the issue.

Diamond called HB 843, the proposal to let two elected officials meet, an “existential threat” to open government in Florida.

Rep. Chris Latvala , R-Clearwater, who earned a D-plus, supported HB 843.

“In the Legislature, we can meet with another legislator one-on-one, so I thought that the state government shouldn’t be treated any differently than the local government,” he said.

Thirteen Tampa Bay area lawmakers scored below a C.

“This ‘scorecard’ was created by a special interest group that thinks legislators should cater to the group’s own political agenda rather than do what is in the best interest of the people of Florida,” said Rep. Chris Sprowls , R-Palm Harbor, who scored a D-plus.

Fred Piccolo, a spokesman for House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes — who scored a D-plus — called inclusion of HB 111, the witness-identity bill, in the scorecard, “just plain silly.” And Latvala said, “If I have to vote on that bill 100 more times, I will vote 100 more times for that bill.”

Kristen M. Clark of the Miami Herald, Michael Auslen of the Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee Bureau, and Joe Daraskevich of the (Jacksonville) Florida Times Union contributed to this story.

How the scorecard was done

The scoring system for the Florida Society of News Editors assigns points for a list of critical government openness bills. Legislators get three points for a floor vote, seven points for co-sponsoring a bill and 10 points for sponsoring a bill that’s on the list. Votes against openness lose points; votes for openness gain points. Legislators got a bonus point for communicating with the Florida First Amendment Foundation about the bill. The scores were compared to the session’s most extreme legislator — good or bad — and turned into standard letter grades for comparison. A perfectly neutral legislator would get a C. In 2017, the most extreme good score paled in comparison with the most extreme worst vote, leaving no legislator with an A score but some with Fs.

The scoring system was criticized by high- and low-scoring legislators from both parties and both legislative chambers. Among the criticisms: The scoring system is too simplistic, didn’t consider the right bills, offered no way to measure a legislator’s overall positive attitude about the importance of open records, and extremely low-scoring legislators altered the scale in a way that made it all but impossible to get As.