When Florida state House Minority Leader Mark Pafford puts a 6 a.m. workout before his legislative meetings on his daily schedule, it’s a public record.
When concerned parent Kimberly Jones of Plantation emails House Speaker Steve Crisafulli saying she has two children going to Florida State University and wants him to oppose a bill allowing guns on college campuses, that’s a public record too.
Reporters and other members of the public can get copies of those and almost all other legislative documents.
As part of a nationwide look at transparency of state legislatures, The Associated Press recently requested copies of all emails and daily schedules from the top four Florida legislative leaders for Feb. 1-7. All four acknowledged they were obliged to respond to the request and produced responses within a few days.
In some states that would seem outlandish, but Florida has a tradition of unusually comprehensive and strict laws on open government and open records. Florida’s “Government in the Sunshine” law mandates public access to meetings and records at all levels of state and local government.
By law, you don’t have to say why you want the records. Requests for the records can even be made anonymously, and any charges for fulfilling the request must be reasonable.
The legislators provided relatively detailed schedules including names of those attending meetings.
Crisafulli, a Merritt Island Republican, and Pafford, a West Palm Beach Democrat, were swamped with hundreds of emails that week because of House consideration of contentious bills allowing open carry of firearms and carrying guns on campus. They said the request for their emails would require extensive staff time and fees; instead, AP narrowed the scope of the request instead.
“I’ve always supported Florida’s open records law and making sure the public has access to records,” Pafford said. “This is the people’s government. If somebody finds out I’m doing a workout or having a doctor’s appointment at a certain time, that’s OK. It’s on my schedule because my staff needs to know what I’m doing when.”
In practice, things aren’t always so open and transparent. Only the response from Senate Minority Leader Arthenia Joyner, a Tampa Demmocrat, for example, included substantial numbers of emails both to and from the legislator.
AP made the same request to Gov. Rick Scott, whose response consisted of references to the websites where he publishes his schedules and emails.
Scott has long published a daily schedule on the governor’s office website, and in 2012, he launched Project Sunburst, a website posting the contents of the email accounts of the governor and his top staff. However, after launching Sunburst, Scott stopped using his office email account to transact business.
In 2014, a lawsuit produced evidence that Scott and his aides had used private email accounts for government business, and a request from the AP, filled only after a three-month delay, showed Scott using his personal account for discussing state business with top aides, after having denied doing so.
While Scott publishes his schedule, meanwhile, it has occasionally omitted important meetings, and also omits some travel details for what his office calls security reasons.
Republished with permission of the Associated Press.