Investigation: Florida Lacks Uniform System to Enforce Public Records Law
A statewide investigation of compliance with Chapter 119 of the Florida Public Records Act by WUFT News in Gainesville, Fla., has found that the state lacks a uniform system to enforce the public records law. WUFT investigated compliance with the state public records law in all 20 Florida district state attorney’s offices.
The Chapter 119 of the state’s sunshine law dictates that “all state, county, and municipal records are open for personal inspection and copying by any person” and providing access to these “is the duty of each agency.”
According to the “Sunshine Lost” investigation, it took 38 days on average for a State Attorney’s Office to complete a public records request and the highest quote to complete a request was $54,000.
The investigation revealed that:
- State Attorney’s Offices (SAO) lack uniformity in responding to or keeping record of F.S. 119 complaints.
- There is no mechanism to track complaints of F.S. 119 violations to hold SAOs accountable for inaction.
- Each SAO responded at different times, some taking longer than others. Request completion times ranged from 10 minutes to 140 days.
- Some offices stated it is not their responsibility to compile records or pursue violations of F.S. 119.
- Finding relevant contact information for an SAO is not easy. Some offices have incorrect or unlisted email addresses. One office required requests to be submitted by standard mail only.
WUFT collaborated with the Tallahassee, Fla.-based First Amendment Foundation on the investigation. The multimedia story, reported and produced by Telecommunication student Andrew Briz and Journalism students Laura Cardona, TJ Pyche and Caitie Switalski, was published to coincide with “Sunshine Week”, a national celebration of access to public information.
“Too frequently citizens are forced into court to enforce their constitutional right of access to public records,” said First Amendment Foundation President Barbara Petersen. “Our state attorneys can take these cases but too frequently they won’t. We needed evidence to back that up and I thought immediately of the investigative reporting students at UF. I’ve been very impressed by the UF journalism students I’ve met and thought the enforcement project was a perfect fit. And I was right.”