State Politics

Legislature adds to the more than 1,000 exceptions to Florida’s public records law

Florida House lawmakers begin their session to debate bills Friday, March 9, 2018, in Tallahassee.
Florida House lawmakers begin their session to debate bills Friday, March 9, 2018, in Tallahassee. Tampa Bay Times

Nearly a dozen new exemptions to public records are poised to become law after this year’s legislative session, as lawmakers chipped away at what information is available to the public under the state’s Sunshine Law.

At least two of those exemptions — crafted as part of the state’s response to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting last month — have already been approved by Gov. Rick Scott after he signed the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Safety Act into law Friday.

One of the two exemptions, SB 7024, shields the home addresses of victims of mass violence. The other, SB 1940, withholds the identities of armed school staff who are trained as part of the state’s new “guardian” program. That last one has open government activists particularly concerned.

The controversial program — named after Aaron Feis, the Stoneman Douglas high school coach who was killed protecting his students — would require staff who opt in to the program to receive 132 hours of firearm training and diversity training and undergo psychological and physical tests. Most teachers are not eligible to participate, but coaches, administrators and other support staff would be.

Exempting identifying information about those employees “precludes any opportunity for oversight and accountability,” said Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation of Florida. The foundation, which advocates for open government, counts the Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald as members.

After the Parkland shooting, the Miami Herald used personnel files to report that Scot Peterson, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school resource officer who failed to act, had previously received commendations and top awards for his work in that position.

During the shooting, he remained outside the building where students and teachers were being killed.

With campus police, “we can make sure he is qualified to be a law enforcement officer,” Petersen, of the foundation, said. “We know his name. But SB 1940 precludes access to any of that information [for armed school staff].”

But Democratic Rep. Jared Moskowitz, who attended Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and represents Parkland, said he supported the exemption for armed staff even though he opposes the guardian program as a whole, because it will make the program safer.

“We don’t want them to be targeted,” he said. “If you think, unfortunately, of the most nefarious situations, the Parkland shooter knew the school. He knew the teachers. If that information was available, people could then take that into consideration.”

Not all exemptions are created equal, but they are part of a years-long trend in the Legislature to whittle down identifying information for certain groups. Among the exemptions lawmakers voted to add this year to the state’s public records law:

▪  Home addresses for public guardians, employees of child advocacy centers and addiction treatment facilities, and members of child protection teams — and that of their immediate family members.

▪  Construction documents for some healthcare facilities, such as building plans and blueprints.

▪  Some United States Census address data.

Lawmakers also voted to reauthorize several exemptions to public records under the Open Government Sunset Review Act, including information on False Claims Act investigations and criminal history records ordered expunged that might still be retained by FDLE.

Florida is widely considered to have among the strongest public records laws in the nation. But Petersen said with more than 1,000 exemptions passed by the Legislature over the years, that openness is continually eroded.

“We see constant chipping away, but we don’t really see anybody, with some minor exemptions, trying to improve access,” she said. “We need the opportunity to oversee our government and hold them accountable.”

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