The Cost of Sunshine

A public records investigation reveals Florida lacks accountability for fees at local and state agencies

WUFT News | March 14, 2018
By Andrew Briz, Caitlin Ostroff, Ethan Bauer,
Alexa Lorenzo, Gabrielle Calise and Ryan Serpico

Florida carries a reputation for having some of the most broad and open public records laws in the country. These laws are designed to protect your right to inspect government information at a reasonable price. But what happens when knowing about your new babysitter’s criminal past is unaffordable, or a request about inspections at your daughter’s school take weeks or months to complete? It turns out not much at all.

Buddy Holland knows the system is flawed. The Duval County property appraiser has worked in local government for 18 years, and he said colleagues have told him they won’t look at requests until the third time they’re made. The reason is simple: no one is watching them.

The state lacks an enforcement mechanism for its well-intentioned law, which WUFT News explored last year in “Sunshine Lost.” This year WUFT News spent six months investigating whether Holland is right and county agencies are abusing this lack of oversight. 

Public records? If it’s important they’ll request it at least three times.

In Florida, any person can request a record from a state or county agency, such as court record or police report. These requests can be made in person or online. Agencies then provide an estimate of the cost and a requestor can choose whether to pay for the request. WUFT News made requests to county and state agencies across the state asking for records of these transactions and the fees associated with them.

But although these agencies are required to fulfill requests, they are not required to keep a record of these transactions or how much money is collected.

“We know that agencies don’t keep particularly good records, and you would think, as we come more and more to the point where records are digitized and available electronically, that it would be cheaper and easier to get access to public records,” said Barbara Petersen, the president of the First Amendment Foundation.

Before releasing records, staff must review them to remove sensitive information like social security numbers. But few agencies use sophisticated software, which forces staff members to read and redact each record page by page. That labor is at the requestor’s expense, Petersen said.

This process is also prone to human error. WUFT reporters received documents with social security and credit card numbers from at least three agencies we investigated.

The tedious process required to review requests can lead to unaffordable fees in some cases. And the process of documenting these requests can be equally tedious, so it often doesn’t get done.

I don’t know what the point really is to see the $1.00 to $3.80.

In Collier County, the tax collector’s office exported emails from more than a dozen staff members in response to WUFT’s requests because those were the only records kept. Though emails were filtered to find certain keywords relating to public records, they also contained spam.

Deputy Tax Collector for Collier County Rob Stoneburner said the agency did not keep records of the cost charged for each request. When pressed, he said he doesn’t see why it’s necessary to collect that information.

“I don’t know what the point really is as far as to see the $1.00 to $3.80 for public records that we would report,” he said.

Without proper record keeping though, WUFT News would not have been able to discover problematic policies that lie below the everyday nickel and dime paid by Floridians.

Nearly 300 miles to the north, an analysis of record costs showed that the Alachua County Supervisor of Elections collected more money from public records than any other supervisor of elections we investigated (adjusting for population).

Despite most records only costing $5 – $10, Alachua County collected significantly more money in fees than other counties (adjusting for population). Some counties didn’t collect any money in 2016.
The significant difference in fees collected was because Alachua was charging for a much higher percentage of records.

Though the average fee was just under $9, a fee was charged for nearly three in every four requests. Most other supervisors of elections charged half as frequently.

Alachua Deputy Supervisor of Elections Will Boyett said a major source of this revenue was charging small fees for the same kinds of records other counties gave out for free.

“I think that’s the biggest thing accounting for the discrepancy,” he said.

Starting in 2017, Boyett said the office began to review the policies for these small fees in an effort to bring the county more in line with other agencies. He says simple voting records which once cost $5 are now given free of charge.

Boyett says the loss in revenue is small and “well worth it for that increased responsiveness to the public,” which will make the residents of Alachua County “feel like engaging with the voting process.”

Holland, the Duval property appraiser who said his former colleagues at other agencies have waited until records have been requested multiple times to fulfill them, also believes transparency will increase confidence in the government. His agency was able to complete WUFT’s request in three days — the fastest and most organized response of all the organizations.

He says when he became property appraiser, he wanted to have a system in place to track requests. He made sure there was one point person for requests and their information was accessible. He also required employees start entering updates into a spreadsheet as progress was made.

The Duval County property appraiser provided this spreadsheet which showed the status and fees of public records requests made to their agency.

By including it in the everyday workflow, there’s little extra burden placed on employees when a records request comes in.

“It think it’s better to do it that way,” he said. “I think there’s less chance of errors if you keep it updated on a daily basis.”

The purpose of this investigation was to audit government agencies to determine how easy it really is for Floridians to access their right to public records. The shortfalls of record keeping made it impossible to come to a comprehensive conclusion.

But the investigation did reveal examples of pitfalls the lack of enforcement can have when agencies choose to abuse it. Petersen said finding those flaws, as well as flaws in the record keeping, could still be beneficial.

“This [investigation] gives a sense of what’s happening in the state of Florida,” she said, “and by getting that information, we can provide it to our lawmakers with the hopes that they will see the problems more easily.”

Three of the reporters who investigated this project sat down with WUFT’s Ethan Ma
goc to discuss how they did it.

Before nearly all records were digital, she said agencies had no problem maintaining them in paper records file cabinets for easy inspection. Now, she’s noticed an enhanced burden for agencies to cobble together digital records in an inexpensive way.

She referred to the Duval County property appraiser’s spreadsheet as an example for what the future of public records access should look like.

“As with the Duval Property Appraiser, simple might be best,” she said, “but there has to be some system, some process in place for retaining and maintaining public records, and tracking requests for those records. When such a system is in place, it’s far easier to respond to public record requests.”

Editor’s Note: to read more about the methodology behind the project as well as the final results, read the full report. This reporting was made possible by the First Amendment Foundation, the National Freedom of Information Coalition and the Knight Foundation.