Sarasota Herald-Tribune

Access Denied

Public officials, ignorant of the law or paralyzed by suspicion, regularly thwart citizens exercising their constitutional right to inspect public records, a statewide audit has found.

While journalists and attorneys enjoy the benefits of Florida’s open government laws, the same rights are not always granted to Florida’s other residents.

During a week in January, the Herald-Tribune and 29 other Florida newspapers tested how officials responded to a routine request to inspect records. Reporters and other news media employees posing as citizens visited 234 local agencies in 62 of Florida’s 67 counties.

Overall, 57 percent of the agencies audited complied with the public records law. The rest made unlawful demands or simply refused to turn over the records.

Public officials lied to, harassed and even threatened volunteers who were using a law designed to give citizens the power to watch over their government. In six counties, volunteers were erroneously told that the documents they wanted didn’t exist.

One volunteer was almost arrested.

Many officials demanded to know who the volunteers represented and what they planned to do with the information — clear violations of the open records law, which ensures anonymity when desired.

“Basically, it’s not the government’s business why a member of the public wants a record,” said Pat Gleason, general counsel for the state’s attorney general. “The desire of government to impose procedural roadblocks … directly conflicts with a citizen’s right of access.”

Instead of responding quickly to their constituents, many officials raised needless bureaucratic requirements, or bounced volunteers from one office to the next in a fruitless hunt for documents.

At nearly half the agencies audited, someone looking to pick up an easily accessible document during a lunch break would have walked away empty-handed.

For a state that prides itself on being a leader in open government, the results are disappointing, said state Attorney General Charlie Crist.

“My hope is that once the results of the audit become known, this will become an educational opportunity,” Crist said. “It is the people’s government. They have the right to have access.”

Barbara Petersen, president of Florida’s First Amendment Foundation, blamed a lack of leadership from Florida’s highest officials. With the exception of Crist, few state leaders champion open records, said Petersen, whose group helped organize the audit.

“We need heroes,” she said. “We need people who care enough about the public’s constitutional rights to step forward.”

Gov. Jeb Bush has been lauded for leading a statewide effort to make government records more accessible by putting them on the Internet.

But Bush spokeswoman Alia Faraj said the governor has no authority over the local agencies included in the audit. He can’t force sheriffs or municipal and county governments to train their employees, she said.

Asked if there was anything the governor could do to get the word to local agencies that open government is important, Faraj said, “We lead by example.”

But the governor’s office was the only one of six state agencies audited that failed to comply with the public records law. The volunteer said she was told she would have to give her name and address and fill out or sign a written request form.

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