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The Florida Public Records Act: A Quick-Start Guide To Open Government

rows of public records
Wikipedia Commons

The Florida Public Records Act, also known as F.S. 119, is straightforward:  All state, county and municipal records are open for personal inspection and copying by any person. And it is the duty of each agency to provide you with access to public records.

Aside from paper documents, some of the things you can ask for include audio and video recordings, emails, photographs, Excel spreadsheets, credit card receipts and even copies of work-issued thumb drives. All records means -- all records.  Unless a record is specifically exempt by law, then the agency must explain why it is withholding information.    

“Elected officials emails are the best place to look,” said Jerry Couey, of Milton, a public records activist.  “Under 119, I can ask for anything and should be granted access with the exception of some legal redactions.”Couey, who ordered nearly 200,000 emails from his local officials, has frequently caught officials “openly talking about how to circumvent the citizens.” 

The first thing you need to do is ask the “custodian” for the records.  In a municipality, this would be the city clerk.  You can make a request by phone, email or letter.  Or you can just show up and look around.

“My top advice is to always ask to inspect public records,” said Couey, who is currently trying to broaden the scope of citizens’ open forum rights in the state.  “They have to produce your request but cannot charge you just to look.”

If you submit a request, try to be as specific as possible.  For example, you might ask for the salaries in your city of officials earning over $100,000. If the agency refuses to provide this information, the law requires the agency to advise you in writing and indicate any applicable exemption and to state with “particularity” the reasons for its decision. If the exemption you are claiming only applies to a portion of the records, you might delete that portion and ask the agency to provide photocopies of the remainder of the records.

An agency can charge for the actual cost of making copies, 15 cents for a one-sided copy, or 20 cents for double-sided copies.  However, if the request involves the "extensive use of information technology resources or extensive clerical or supervisory assistance” as defined in the law, you have a right to get a written estimate and justification.

If a citizen runs into an access roadblock or gets overcharged, there is a watchdog group that may be able to help. For example, when the Naples City Council tried to impose questionable fees on citizens requesting copies of public records, including $10 for a blank DVD and bumping the rate for copies to 25 cents each, the Tallahassee-based First Amendment Foundation stepped in to help.

“A DVD doesn’t cost $10 unless it’s made of gold,” the First Amendment Foundation’s president Barbara Petersen told the Naples Daily News

Petersen and her crew helped reverse the proposed fee structure.  “Everything they were trying to do in that original proposal was contrary to what the law says,” said Petersen, who is co-sponsoring a free national Sunshine Week discussion at St. Petersburg College from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday.

By using the public records act locally, citizens can provide oversight as to actions that affect their communities.  Open government is good government

Theo Karantsalis is a librarian and an open government activist.  He is a member of the First Amendment Foundation's Sunshine Brigade.  As a freelancer for the Miami Herald, Theo enjoys writing historical and civic features related to Miami's inner city. Find him on Twitter, @springyleaks.

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