Open Government and Florida’s Project Sunburst

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the guest blogger and those providing comments are theirs alone and do not reflect the opinions of the Sunlight Foundation or any employee thereof. Sunlight Foundation is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information within the guest blog.

Florida has been known to have some of the most impressive open government practices. But a few recent changes threatened to shake the people’s foundation of their right to know. Our guest blogger Barbara Petersen is here today to share the Sunshine State’s new initiatives on opening up their government. Barbara is the President of the First Amendment Foundation  a private not-for profit in Tallahassee Florida which acts as an advocate for the public’s right to oversee it’s government.

Two weeks ago, Florida’s Governor Rick Scott held a press conference, announcing the launch of an ambitious project that will allow online access to much of his email correspondence and that of 11 members of his leadership team.  Project Sunburst.

According to a press release from the Governor’s Press Office, the emails will be available with search capabilities.  Project Sunburst requires that all emails sent or received by the Governor and the designated staffers be posted to the Sunburst website within seven days.  The goal, however, is posting within 24 hours of receipt or transmission, and the Governor has plans to expand the program to include other agencies within the executive branch. The launch of Project Sunburst is one of a number of Governor Scott’s transparency initiatives – a second website, FloridahasARightToKnow  launched last year, provides access to state employee salary information and state pensions of $100,000 per year or more.  The state employee information is extremely useful, providing the name of the employee, the name of the employing agency, and the employee’s annual salary and number of years employed.  The pension information is relatively worthless in comparison – the database lists each state agency and the number of employees with pensions of more than $100,000 but provides little information that would help identify the employee.

 

Many of the Scott’s detractors claim that his transparency initiatives have more to do with the Governor’s political agenda – reducing the state work force and driving down the cost of government pensions – than a desire to be held accountable.  Regardless, the transparency website, like Project Sunburst, allows for easy and free access to information that is regularly requested through routine public record requests and sets a very positive example for other state agencies and local governments – if the governor can provide online access to regularly requested records, then why can’t a school board or county commission? In the first months of the Scott administration, his Office of Open Government reported a steep increase in the number of public record requests, particularly requests from the media for the email correspondence of the governor’s top staff.  In an attempt to alleviate the workload and improve access, the First Amendment Foundation, worked with the Capitol press corps and OOG staff to devise a plan under which FAF would make weekly requests for the email correspondence of five members of the Governor’s staff; once obtained by FAF, the email records would be dumped in a DropBox, and everyone given the key. Had it only been so simple.

 

FAF dutifully made the first request on March 7, 2011, requesting all email correspondence sent or received by the Governor, his chief of staff, and the five staffers. At about the same time FAF started making its public records requests, the governor’s office announced a “cost recovery” policy for public records. Under the new policy, OOG staff would respond to each public record request with an invoice estimating the cost of providing the records; once the invoice was paid (by cash or check, credit cards not accepted), the requested records would be produced.  There would be no charge for records requests costing less than $5.  What seemed like a reasonable policy at first blush turned into the public access nightmare from hell, and because of the time it took to track requests – nearly all were provided in pieces, a few one week, the remainder months later – and the costs associated with obtaining access, FAF was forced to abandon its project after only two months.

 

We received most of the records requested that first week within a fairly reasonable period of time and at no cost.  There was one glaring example, however: it took two months and cost $788.84 to obtain about 1,100 emails from the Governor’s communications director.  According to the invoice, the staffer took an hour to review 100 emails at an hourly rate of $70.87/hour – the communications director made $147,400 per year, and FAF was charged for the 11 hours it took him to retrieve and review his emails, many of which were on his personal email account.  (In another instance, we were charged the hourly rate for a top staffer who made just over $200,000 a year or $96.64 an hour.) FAF made eight requests in all, paid about $4,000 to obtain the requested emails, and received the last batch of the records in December – ten months after the final request was made.  Ultimately, the Governor agreed to refund the costs charged for those records it took longer than 60 days to obtain and, most importantly, made important revisions to his original cost recovery policy. Project Sunburst alleviates many of the problems FAF encountered and is, in all respects, a huge step forward for the Sunshine State.  The devil, of course, is in the details.  According to the May 3 press release, emails containing exempt information will not be posted, but will be provided pursuant to a public record request (with the exempt information redacted).  It seems, then, that we will need to continue to make regular public record requests for those emails and, of course, for the email correspondence of those staffers not included in Project Sunburst. Regardless, Governor Rick Scott deserves to be commended and hopefully, others in government, both in Florida and around the country, will follow his example.

(Below are the First Amendment public records request timeline)

A timeline of Public Records Requests by the First Amendment Foundation to the Governor of Florida’s Office

Interested in writing a guest blog for Sunlight? Email us at guestblog@sunlightfoundation.com

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