Department Initiatives

Open Government and Transparency at DCF

Daytona Beach News Journal
March 16, 2008

Public-records requests get honored -- mostly

By M.C. Moewe, Staff Writer

At the state Department of Transportation in DeLand, a clerk would not provide public documents, saying requests must be made in writing to prevent identify theft and terrorism within the highway system.

A News-Journal staffer went to the office, without identifying herself as a member of the media, to test whether government agencies were complying with the Florida public records law.

She was among newspapers staffers and volunteers from the First Amendment Foundation who fanned out across the state in recent weeks to see if average citizens would be given a copies of travel vouchers for top officials.

Approximately half were turned away, empty-handed.

Much of the credit goes to Gov. Charlie Crist. He formed the Office of Open Government early in his tenure and then pushed hard for new regulations to force state agencies to treat citizens asking for public records with courtesy and respect, and require the agencies to respond promptly. He also created the state's Commission on Open Government, a nine-member advisory panel charged with making recommendations on how to improve and better enforce the state's open government laws.

In Volusia County, two of three staffers were told they could not have the travel voucher, including at the DeLand transportation office. An office assistant there, who was filling in for a woman who normally fielded requests, said people must make requests in writing with their name, phone number and reason for wanting the document.

Under Florida law, requests need not be put in writing, nor must a person identify himself or give a reason for the request.

When told of the response, Robert Burdick, deputy general counsel for the state's Department of Transportation in Tallahassee, said, "That is not the department's policy for public records requests. I assure you I'll look into it."

The First Amendment Foundation, a watchdog group, sent volunteers to 34 state agencies to request the last travel reimbursement for the agency's chief administrative officer. Nearly half set requirements that technically violated the state's open government laws when filling requests.

"In slipping up, they were very helpful," Petersen said. "The mistakes made were minimal. The kinds of mistakes we saw were very simple mistakes to correct."

Only two of the agencies were considered failures:

· Visit Florida, the state's official source for Florida travel planning, which receives some public money and is headquartered in Tallahassee, didn't let the volunteer in the door, saying the building was under renovations.

· And the Department of Transportation in Tallahassee, where the volunteer was told she needed to leave a name, a reason for the request and put the request in writing. That volunteer also was brought into a lawyer's office and was treated rudely, the audit said.

Eighteen of the 34 agencies in Tallahassee agreed to fill records requests with no violations. Of those, 12 initially asked volunteers for their names before agreeing to continue when volunteers refused, according to the audit. Only six agencies had two or more violations. Among them was the attorney general's office, which mediates open government disputes. The volunteer said the office was somewhat uncooperative and required him to give his name and put his request in writing

In addition, newspapers in Florida sent staffers to 25 government offices in 11 counties and had them ask for public records without identifying themselves as members of the media. Slightly fewer than half, or 40 percent, of the government offices provided the public record, as required by law.

In Volusia County, the Health Department would not provide the record, saying requests had to be in writing. But the Department of Children & Families in Daytona Beach fulfilled the request within minutes, producing a mileage reimbursement for the district administrator for $339.

DCF also performed perfectly in the foundation's audit in Tallahassee, along with the governor's Office of Open Government, Community Affairs, Military Affairs, Veterans' Affairs and the Department of State.

For the Department of Children & Families, the response was a complete turnaround from an audit conducted four years ago, Petersen said.

The department then made calls trying to find out the name and background of the auditor and why she wanted the record, and she was forced to talk to the agency's top lawyer.

"It was an overwhelming sense of suspicion, and now I think that has changed and changed dramatically," Petersen said.

What's Sunshine Week?
Sunshine Week, observed by newspapers nationwide, grew out of Florida's annual Sunshine Sunday campaign to call attention to the importance of openness in government.

When post 9/11 fears sent state lawmakers scurrying to close public records, members of the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors championed the subject on a Sunday in March 2002. Today is the sixth Sunshine Sunday.

What Does It Mean to You?
Access helps residents know what the government is doing, how tax money is spent and what elected officials are doing. Public records can be used to research property records, review lawsuits, check criminal histories, verify a day care center is licensed, check on a doctor's background and much more.

Access denied?
The Daytona Beach News-Journal sent three staffers -- just as regular citizens -- to the branch offices of three state agencies to see if they would comply with the Florida public records law. Here is what happened:
  1. State Department of Children & Families, Daytona Beach:
    Within two minutes, a secretary provided a travel voucher for February showing $339 in mileage for District Administrator Reggie Williams.
  2. State Department of Transportation, DeLand:
    Denied a request for the most recent travel vouchers of the top administrator, saying request had to be in writing because of concerns about identity theft and terrorism within the highway system.
  3. Volusia County Health Department, Daytona Beach:
    Health director's secretary denied a request for the most recent travel voucher, saying requests had to be in writing and sent to the legal department.
-- Staff Report