Undercover reporter denied access to public records

The man politely refused to give his name when he made a public records request at the Charlotte County (Fla.) school district. While an official looked into the request, district security officers called sheriff’s deputies to report a suspicious person.

 

Undercover reporter denied access to public records

Associated Press

SARASOTA, Fla. (February 2004) — The man politely refused to give his name when he made a public records request at the Charlotte County school district.

While an official looked into the request, district security officers called sheriff’s deputies to report a suspicious person. It turns out the mysterious man was a Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune reporter posing as an anonymous citizen in a test of public officials’ response to the state’s open government laws.

The study by the Herald-Tribune and 29 other Florida newspapers found that 43% of the agencies audited made unlawful demands or simply refused to turn over public records. Results were published Saturday.

Reporters and other news media employees visited 234 local agencies in 62 of Florida’s 67 counties during a week in January, asking for 911 call logs from sheriff’s offices, city manager job reviews, county administrator e-mails and school superintendent cell phone bills. They asked for the information without saying they were journalists.

The results were disappointing for a state that prides itself on being a leader in open government, said state Attorney General Charlie Crist. “My hope is that once the results of the audit become known, this will become an educational opportunity,” he said.

Florida law says the public can inspect any document generated by the government unless it is specifically exempted. Exceptions include written communications, investigation results, financial records and personnel files.

Part of the problem is that many government workers, and even reporters, don’t know what the law says, newspaper officials and lawyers said Saturday at a conference in Orlando sponsored by the First Amendment Foundation, a nonprofit open government advocacy group that helped organize the audit.

Chuck Richards, manager of employee relations for Charlotte County schools, said he wasn’t aware that the public records law did not require that a name be given. The Herald-Tribune reporter, he said, “was being very mysterious, and it was causing anxiety among the staff. He was not acting in a physically imposing way, but there was an attitude. It was his unwillingness to follow our process.”

The governor’s office was the only one of six state agencies audited that failed to comply with the public records law. The volunteer was told she would have to give her name and address and fill out or sign a written request form.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Jeb Bush denied that the governor’s office violated the law and said the volunteer may have misunderstood what she was told.

Bush said he would study the audit. “If there are deficiencies in the system then we will look at it,” he said.

Attendees at Saturday’s conference said training sessions on public records laws should be held for government workers, public officials, legislators, citizens and reporters.

The public records audit was organized by the Florida First Amendment Foundation, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and the Florida Press Association.