By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
A news organization seeking information about foreclosure policies in Florida got slammed with a prohibitively high fee for its public records request.
When the Center for Public Integrity last summer requested records from Florida’s 17th judicial circuit regarding the procedures and policies surrounding foreclosure cases, officials were more than happy to comply — for a price.
A price of $132,348, to be exact.
Alexandra Rieman, general counsel for the circuit that includes Fort Lauderdale and Broward County, said the public records request would require staff to sort through 149,000 emails. That, in turn, would require 2,500 staff member hours at rates of either $45 or $53 an hour, which added up to the $132,348 figure.
And whatever records the court system did provide would cost another 15 cents a page, Rieman added, without including estimates of staffer hours and hourly rates.
The Center for Public Integrity refused to pay the amount, arguing that the fees were excessive.
Even though Florida has robust public record laws, the effectiveness of those laws in practice is another story.
In March 2013, Barbara Petersen with the Florida First Amendment Foundation (and a FCIR board member) wrote an op-ed making this very point:
Florida received a perfect score for our laws guaranteeing access to government records, but in scoring whether those laws are effectively enforced, we barely managed a passing grade. There is no agency in Florida responsible for enforcing our right of access to government information, which means that a citizen wrongly denied access to government information is sidelined into civil court to force agency compliance with the constitutional right of access.
Another area of concern underscored by the State Integrity Investigation is the cost of obtaining public records – in addition to the actual cost of copying, our public records law allows an agency to charge a reasonable fee for the “extensive” use of agency resources. “Extensive” is not defined, however, and costs can vary dramatically, even when requesting the same record from various agencies.
In a report on state transparency efforts released last March by U.S. PIRG, a federation of state public interest research groups, Florida received a score of 59 out of a possible 100 points – another D. States not generally associated with strong public access laws such as Texas and Louisiana scored at the top of the list, and most other states blew past Florida in the rankings.
So, CPI’s experience with a Florida court is hardly isolated.
Just this year, a reporter won a legal fight over public records fees in a Collier County Court.
A Naples reporter has prevailed in her quest for lower document fees.
Gina Edwards of the Watchdog City news organization will get 556 pages of documents from Collier Clerk of Courts Dwight Brock on an electronic disk for $2 rather than the $556 Brock sought.
Collier Circuit Judge Fred Hardt issued the order Wednesday after both sides made their cases in a March 3 hearing.
Brock’s attorney, Tony Pires, argued that Brock is required to charge $1 a page under section 28 of Florida Statutes.
Attorneys for Edwards said the fee was exorbitant and had a chilling effect on the public seeking access to public records. They also argued that Brock should charge a maximum of 15 cents per page under Florida Statute 119, the state’s public records law.
In his ruling, Hardt sidestepped the underlying issue of whether Brock must charge $1 a page or only 15 cents per page.
Since the documents in question were in electronic form, the conflict between statutes 28 and 119 is irrelevant, Hardt ruled.
Besides high fees, there have been other public records hurdles in the past few years.
Most recently, Gov. Rick Scott came under fire for allegedly using private email and text messages to skirt sunshine laws.