Make sure you understand the law.
That’s the message Sen. Wilton Simpson sent to the business community Monday. In a memo to business leaders, the Trilby Republican said businesses that have contracts with local or state government “need to understand the change that was made to the public records law.”
Under a new law signed by Gov. Rick Scott in March, a person seeking records dealing with contract services can no longer make the request directly of the contractor. Instead, the request must be made to the public agency that contracted with the business.
The agency is required to fill the request if it has the records. If not, the agency is required to notify the contractor, which is then required to provide the records or allow access in a reasonable amount of time.
Simpson said the law was meant to stop records requests he said were being filed “for only one purpose: creating confusion for the business owners that leads to frivolous lawsuits to obtain cash settlements.”
“I am an unwavering supporter of comprehensive public access laws so citizens can hold their government accountable,” he said in an email Tuesday. “In these cases though, it was clear that the rights of private citizens and hardworking business owners were being trampled by some unscrupulous people bent on getting rich off a new scam.”
Barbara Petersen, the president of the First Amendment Foundation, said the organization was neutral in its position. When the bill was first proposed in 2015, Petersen said her organization worked “very hard to strike the right balance that would protect contractors from those people that were making public records request for the sole purpose of causing a violation.”
The law went into effect immediately upon signature. But in his memo to the business community Monday, Simpson said “individuals are still contacting businesses and demanding public records relating to contracts.”
“Our business owners have not been properly educated. They don’t know they have no obligation to respond,” he said. “Additionally, we are trying to get the word out to the public agencies that it’s their responsibility to handle these requests.”
Petersen said she recently received a call from a contractor who had been notified by a person he wasn’t in compliance and was about to be sued. In that example, Petersen said the state agency had the records; and under the new law, it should be responsible for producing documents.
“To some extent, it’s a misunderstanding of the law,” she said. “But we still have those people taking advantage.”
Simpson agrees state and local government agencies need to become “more well-informed themselves.” He also said state agencies need to work to educate the business community about how to move forward.
“No private business in this state should be communicating with any person or entity about public records requests except for the agency they signed the contract with,” he said. “The agency should be handling all communication with the requestor and fulfilling the request. The agencies should be giving these businesses easy-to-understand answers.”