Sunday, February 22, 2004
Public records audit: Some records requests met with suspicion and threats 02/07/04: "Public officials, ignorant of the law or paralyzed by suspicion, regularly thwart citizens exercising their constitutional right to inspect public records, a statewide audit has found.

While journalists and attorneys enjoy the benefits of Florida's open government laws, the same rights are not always granted to Florida's other residents.

During a week in January, 30 Florida newspapers, including The St. Augustine Record, tested how officials responded to a routine request to inspect records. Reporters and other news media employees posing as citizens visited 234 local agencies in 62 of Florida's 67 counties. Items requested included public officials' e-mails, cell phone records and routine police logs.

Overall, 57 percent of the agencies audited complied with the public records law, including most of those in St. Johns County, where school officials required a written request for the school superintendent's cell phone records.

The other agencies reviewed statewide made unlawful demands or simply refused to turn over the records.

Public officials lied to, harassed and even threatened volunteers who were using a law designed to give citizens the power to watch over their government. In six counties, volunteers were erroneously told that the documents they wanted didn't exist.

Many officials demanded to know who the volunteers represented and what they planned to do with the information -- clear violations of the open records law, which ensures anonymity when desired.

'Basically, it's not the government's business why a member of the public wants a record,' said Pat Gleason, general counsel for the state's attorney general. 'The desire of government to impose procedural roadblocks directly conflicts with a citizen's right of access.'

Instead of responding quickly to their constituents, many officials raised needless bureaucratic requirements, or bounced volunteers from one office to the next in a fruitless hunt for documents.

At nearly half the agencies audited, someone looking to pick up an easily accessible document during a lunch break would have walked away empty-handed."

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