Florida officials send a $2,700 bill for public records about their May trip to Israel

By: - July 26, 2019 11:30 am
State Capitol

The 2021 Florida Legislature convenes March 2 under COVID-19 restrictions. Here, the working Capitol appears behind the Historic Capitol Museum. Credit: Colin Hackley

The state wants the Florida Phoenix to pay more than $2,700 before it will turn over public records relating to a trip that Gov. Ron DeSantis and nearly 100 people – including the state’s elected Cabinet – took May 25-31 to Israel.

An Enterprise Florida spokeswoman says that’s the cost in staff time spent processing 16,288 pages of emails and attachments where DeSantis administration staffers mentioned the search terms “Jerusalem” and “mission” leading up to the trip.

State officials have yet to release the full cost of sending the state officials overseas, where they met with a variety of Israeli officials, political donors, and held a Florida Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem.

Other media organizations in the capital press corps say some of their public records requests to the DeSantis administration have been met with zero response, lengthy delays (some requests were made six months ago), and, at least in one other case, an invoice for $2,800.

The Phoenix requested the information more than three months ago – on April 16. Enterprise Florida sent its billing estimate on July 16, well after the Florida delegation returned from Israel, meaning the Phoenix couldn’t pass along the information in time to let the readers know what they were paying for beforehand. The governor’s communications office attributed the delay in part to a backlog inherited from the Rick Scott administration.

The Phoenix also made a request for public records with the search terms “Tel Aviv” and “mission.” That request remains pending. The state’s open records law doesn’t set a specific time frame for officials to produce public records, other than a “reasonable time.”

State officials did release a document to the media that gives a partial picture of what the trip cost. Lobbyists and corporations contributed more than $311,000 to the mission, the document shows, including $22,245 toward travel for the Executive Office of the Governor and $10,596 for Cabinet agencies. The public picked up more than $29,000 toward travel costs for Enterprise Florida staff.

In an email to the Phoenix, Enterprise Florida, which planned the trade mission, cited the state’s Government-in-the-Sunshine law –  Florida  Statutes Section 119.07(4)(d) –  which authorizes “a service charge to retrieve the documents would be assessed equivalent to the hourly rate of pay for the lowest personnel with full access to the files.”

That statute authorizes such charges when requests require “extensive use of information technology resources or extensive clerical or supervisory assistance by personnel of the agency involved, or both.”

The state also may  require public records requesters to pay review costs under Section 288.075, a law that  shields “trade secrets.”

Enterprise Florida estimated it spent 88.38 hours compiling the data, at $31.25 per hour, including the cost of finding and redacting privileged material. Although the first 30 minutes spent searching are free, the bill for these services adds up to $2,761.88.

The price of producing documents definitely impedes the public’s access to public records, said Barbara Petersen, Florida President of the First Amendment Foundation.

“I’m seeing too much of it and not just at the state level – lots of local governments charge what I believe are excessively high fees for public records,” Petersen said. “And it’s not just news organizations, it’s citizens as well. It’s been going on for far too long.”

Petersen sat on a state Commission on Open Government Reform late in the administration of former Gov. Charlie Crist. The panel found a public perception that the expense of acquiring public documents reflected a deliberate attempt to discourage access to government records.

“Most times, though, it’s because of inefficient record keeping systems. Government agencies aren’t taking advantage of readily available software programs – email and text management programs, for example, or redaction software – that make it easier on the custodial agency and reduce costs for the requestors. Why? Neither the Legislature nor the governor have taken any initiative to bring costs down,” she said.

The commission recommended prohibiting agencies from charging high fees to redact exempt material, among other reforms. “Those recommendations fell on deaf ears,” Petersen said. “The Legislature hasn’t passed any meaningful reform of the public records law since 1995.” Legislation arising from the commission’s work received a single committee hearing and then “died a quick death.”

And it probably would be up to the Legislature to do anything major about the situation, she added.

“The governor could also embrace sunshine. Crist was Mr. Sunshine and that attitude trickled down to state agencies and local governments,” Petersen said. Former Gov. Rick Scott, who succeeded Crist, “was anti-sunshine and, again, that attitude trickled down.” In fact, when Scott took office, she said, his administration removed the Open Government Reform Commission’s report from his official website.

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Michael Moline
Michael Moline

Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal.