Toss bill, keep our records open

By Steve Estes

There is one week left in the Florida Legislative session, which leaves both enough time for our elected leadership to push through some really bad ideas, and also enough time to toss out some really bad ideas.

Based on recent history much more of the former will occur than the latter we’re sure.

But what we do hope gets tossed is a bill currently sailing through committee on its way to a floor vote that very nearly slams the door on public transparency through records.

HB249 and its companion SB1260 claim to be intended to cut down on potential voter fraud (where have we heard that one before), identity theft and most importantly, according to bill sponsors, cut down on spam emails to Florida’s registered, or soon-to-be registered voters.

The way this supposedly works is that emails to and from all state, county or municipal elected officials, any state or county or municipal employee, that comes from a registered voter can have the email address of the sender removed before that email is made available as a public record so that folks can’t identify the voter.

Bill sponsors claim this will cut down on voter fraud. We’re not sure if they’re speaking of the actual dozen cases, two of which were elected officials “testing” the system, that were discovered in the last general election, or the massive voter fraud that the Republican-controlled Legislature has been braying about for six years. And while braying, those same Legislators have passed onerous early voting restrictions, onerous identification requirements, and what turned out to be unconstitutional limits on voter registration drives.

And now, our elected leaders want to protect the fragile voting public from unwanted spam email by making sure that said voters can’t be identified in a public records request.

That’s so nice of them.

What’s not nice is that either through a failure to properly investigate the actual ramifications of these bills, or a deliberate attempt to later say “oops”, lawmakers will allow their lobbyist buddies and deep-pocketed interests a chance to converse at will through email with no thought to being found out by the voting public.

No one would be able to see who it is that’s lobbying elected officials for a sweetheart deal if that lobbyist is a registered voter. Developers looking to run roughshod over some sleepy little town that has no idea what’s coming would be able to converse at will through email with elected officials, and even the staff that might have some say over how the development pans out, as long as that developer is a registered voter.

Should the public want to know who it is that’s spending so much time talking about the new landfill in the pristine wilderness, they could file a records request under Florida’s currently broad interpretation of the rules.

But that request would take quite some time and quite some expense as staffers would first have to redact the email address of the registered voters included in the conversation. And of course, there is the research time by staff to determine if the sender is a registered voter.

And should we take this thought process to the next level, politicians and agency board members who spend taxpayer dollars, currently barred from speaking to one another outside public meetings in any medium on any subject that might come before them for a vote later on, would be able to freely send emails back and forth to lobby for or against initiatives with colleagues as long as either of them is a registered voter.

Based on recent history, we tend to go more with the “oops” scenario than any true concern for unwanted spam emails by the state’s voters.

If computer users don’t want spam, the technology industries provide any number of ways to limit, or eradicate, emails from all but approved sources.

We have to assume that the voting public is informed enough to avail themselves of those methods.

We also have to assume that our state’s elected officials also have either the individual expertise, or the taxpayer-funded expertise through staff, to reduce or eliminate unwanted spam emails in electronic inboxes.

Florida has a very broad, very voter-friendly open records law. This move alone would tend to shut off one of the easiest sources for constituents pressed for time to keep tabs on what shady things might be happening in the offices of the Tallahassee bound.

Now that the measure is gaining some notoriety, very little favorable, it’s entirely possible it will be pulled from the floor or amended to make it less sweeping.

We would recommend that the bill die a quick, painful death in the appropriate round file.

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