Government employees would be trained to comply with Florida's public-records laws, and citizens asking to see official documents usually would not have to put their requests in writing, under a package of changes approved Thursday by a Senate committee.
"These are a lot of very good reforms that we're excited about," said Barbara Petersen, the long-time lobbyist for the First Amendment Foundation, after the quick and unanimous approval of a package by the Senate Government Operations Committee.
The panel struck from the plan a provision that would have allowed people to request public documents anywhere an agency is open for business. Petersen said, taken to an extreme, that might mean someone could ask a lifeguard at a municipal swimming pool to fetch records of the parks and recreation department.
She said the change might mollify some concerns among local governments. A representative of the Florida League of Cities declined to testify on the package but said his group will work on details through the legislative session.
The committee plan (SPB 7064) provides that requests for public information would not have to be submitted in writing, except when required by state law. It also spells out definitions of "confidential" and "exempt," which are now contained only in case law rather than statute.
The proposal forbids public agencies from paying dues to any foundation or association unless the organization's records are open for public inspection and copying — including financial and membership records relating to the government agency paying dues. Any other records such a foundation shares with its general membership would also have to be publicly available.
Another provision would require that when someone makes a large, complex request for a large volume of records, government agencies can only charge a fee equal to the hourly pay of the lowest-paid employee qualified to gather the information. Current law allows agencies to include the cost of those employees' benefits, not just their hourly rate.
Private contractors working for public agencies would also have to notify those agencies before denying a request for public information held by the companies. If a citizen files suit against a contractor for failing to comply with public-records laws, the company would have to notify the employing state, county or city agency.
People successfully suing agencies for access to public records can be reimbursed for attorney fees, Petersen said, but often that requires going back to court to decide how much the lawyers should be paid. Under current law, the fee hearing is not covered by the recovery rules, she said, but the new proposal would provide recovery of attorney fees for both the original suit and fee determination.
"It's a clean-up bill," said Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, who chairs the Senate panel and handled the bill. "We're codifying case law, providing certain definitions. Everybody knows about attorney fees, but it needs to be in statute that fees go to the prevailing party."
A companion bill (HB 1151) by Rep. Dave Hood, R-Daytona Beach, is pending in the House.