State Politics

Public-record exemptions in Parkland bill lower Sunshine scores for most lawmakers

State Rep. Joseph Geller received one of the highest grades in the state Legislature for his support of public-records laws.
State Rep. Joseph Geller received one of the highest grades in the state Legislature for his support of public-records laws.

When it comes to their votes on transparency bills in the Florida Legislature, Miami-Dade and Broward lawmakers scored across the board — from an F to an A+ — according to new “grades” put out by the Florida Society of News Editors on Wednesday.

How your local lawmaker fared was based on how many bills they supported that would allow for more exemptions to public records and meetings laws, or on the flip side how many they supported that would expand public access. The Florida Society of News Editors is made up of about three dozen news agencies, including the Miami Herald and the Tampa Bay Times.

The grades bear no correlation to political party, as the addition of more public records exemptions added each year has been supported and fought by members across the aisle.

But one bill in particular, a part of the Legislature’s sweeping response to the February tragedy in Parkland, brought nearly every lawmaker’s score down this year. For some local legislators, like Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, his “F” grade was due in large part to his actions on this bill.

SB 1940, which has since been signed into law, exempted from public record the identities of any school “guardians,” the title given to school staff who opt to go through training and carry a gun on school campuses. It also exempted information submitted through the mobile app mandated in the post-Parkland bill, which students can use to report suspicious behavior to law enforcement, as well as portions of the meetings of the commission created to investigate the institutional failures that led to the Parkland shooting.

Braynon said he was “so wrapped up” in the Parkland policy bill — a sweeping measure that created new restrictions on gun purchases, provided a process for law enforcement to remove guns from the mentally unstable and created the “guardian” program to arm school staff — that many of the details of its accompanying public records exemption bill didn’t come to his attention until after the session. He voted for SB 1940.

“It’s the double-edged sword,” Braynon said. “I don’t think the [guardian] program should exist but exactly why the program should exist is why you should exempt the names because you don’t want to know who has a gun when coming to school.”

Transparency advocates have argued that knowing the identities of school guardians will help the news media hold school staff accountable if/when things go wrong, similar to how the Miami Herald reported on the record of Scot Peterson, the school resource officer at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, after 17 people were killed there.

But SB 1940 passed unanimously in the Senate, many arguing that keeping the names of armed staff out of the hands of a would-be shooter outweighed the public’s right to know.

“When it came to Marjory Stoneman Douglas we are unfortunately having to learn from a tragedy like this,” said Rep. Daniel Perez, R-Miami, a freshman lawmaker. He said that he especially supported the exemption for information submitted through the mobile app, saying if it were an open record, “it would deter people from opening up to officials and prevent this from happening in the future.”

Perez was deducted points on his scorecard for supporting SB 1940, but still received a “B” for his other votes, making him one of the top-scoring local lawmakers. He voted for bills that would have increased transparency in the budgeting process and in contracts with state agencies, and would have prohibited governmental agencies from suing people for requesting public records.

Braynon also voted for a bill that would have allowed government entities to discuss potential lawsuits behind closed doors, rather than just pending litigation as is the current law. He said this aspect of the open meetings law can give the other party in a lawsuit an unfair advantage.

“All the other attorneys would have to do is sit in on that meeting to know what they would have to do,” he said.

Another high-scoring Republican was Rep. Holly Raschein of Key Largo, who received a “B” for a record similar to Perez.

“I think it’s lockstep with our efforts on a statewide basis to make sure government remains open and transparent and accountable to the people we serve,” she said.

The lawmaker who shared the highest grade from the South Florida delegations was Rep. Joseph Geller, D-Aventura, who got an “A+.” Geller is notorious on the House floor for asking what position the First Amendment Foundation, a pro-open government group, holds on particular bills during debates. Broward Democratic Sens. Gary Farmer and Kevin Rader also earned "A+" grades.

Geller was one of only two lawmakers who voted against SB 1940, along with Rep. Lori Berman, D-Lantana.

“The notion that if you’re going to have an investigatory commission, for God’s sake, the records of that proceeding are more important to be made public than almost anything. That’s the whole point,” he said. “How can you say we’re going to have a commission to look into it and we're not going to tell anyone what we find?”

Geller said that in general, unless information relates to the Florida Constitution’s guarantee of personal privacy, he errs on the side of open meetings and records.

“The fact is Florida is — or was at least — the leader in open government with our public records law the very pioneering Sunshine Law,” he said. “Those are important and we have to protect them from being chipped away.”

Miami-Dade, Monroe legislators

NameParty, cityGrade
Rep. Robert Asencio D-MiamiB
Rep. Bryan AvilaR-HialeahB-
Rep. Michael BilecaR-MiamiB-
Sen. Oscar Braynon IID-Miami GardensF
Sen. Daphne CampbellD-Miami ShoresF
Rep. Manny Diaz Jr.R-HialeahB-
Rep. Nicholas DuranD-MiamiB
Sen. Anitere FloresR-MiamiD-
Sen Rene GarciaR-HialeahC
Rep. Joseph GellerD-AventuraA+
Rep. Roy HardemonD-MiamiB
Rep. Kionne McGheeD-MiamiB
Rep. Jeanette NunezR-MiamiB-
Rep. Jose OlivaR-Miami LakesB-
Rep. Daniel PerezR-MiamiB
Rep. Sharon PritchettD-Miami Gardens D+
Rep. Holly RascheinR-Key LargoB
Rep. David RichardsonD-Miami BeachC+
Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez D-MiamiD+
Rep. Cynthia StaffordD-MiamiB-
Sen. Annette TaddeoD-MiamiF
Rep. Carlos TrujilloR-MiamiB-
Rep. Barbara WatsonD-Miami Gardens B

Broward legislators

NameParty, cityGrade
Sen. Lauren BookD-PlantationD
Rep. Bobby DuBoseD-Fort LauderdaleC+
Rep. Katie Edwards-WalpoleD-PlantationC
Sen. Gary FarmerD-Lighthouse PointA+
Rep. Kristin JacobsD-Coconut CreekC
Rep. Evan JenneD-Dania BeachB
Rep. Shevrin JonesD-West ParkC+
Rep. George Moraitis Jr.R-Fort LauderdaleB-
Rep. Jared MoskowitzD-Coral SpringsB-
Sen. Kevin RaderD-Delray BeachA+
Rep. Barrington RussellD-Lauderdale LakesB
Rep. Richard StarkD-WestonB-
Sen. Perry Thurston Jr.D-Fort LauderdaleF
Rep. Patricia WilliamsD-Lauderdale LakesB