A Matter of Public Record

Way back when I was a nerdy high school student working part time at The Bradenton Herald, a reporter told me something about public records.

They are juicy. They aren't that hard to get. And, they are mine. Not because I am a journalist, but because I am the public — just like you.

Armed with that knowledge, I went to the Manatee County Courthouse and looked into the divorce file of some of my neighbors. There was a restraining order in that file. And a long list of abuse allegations. And, a financial report that summarized everything they had in the bank and everywhere else.

Of course, I wrote everything down.

When I got home, my mother yelled at me for being so nosey and violating our neighbors' privacy.

Then she asked what I'd found.

That was a little more than 20 years ago, and since that time, I have found plenty in the public record. I want to show you how to get these records for yourself because a) they belong to you, and b) some public agencies don't like having to respond to the public and try to thwart these requests. At some point, I'll ask you to make a few requests of these people.

The records are kept public so we can participate in government and see, firsthand, how things do and don't work. Few citizens understand the breadth of Florida's open records law. It is massive.

At some point, you may have looked at a court case, property tax record or list of directors on some corporation. What you might not know is that our state law allows you to look at virtually anything — documents, tapes, computer files, e-mails —created in the course of government business. Federal law is another matter. You have to fight harder and expect less — especially since George W. Bush took charge.

That means letters, memos, drafts of audits, driving records, public personnel records, grant applications, contracts, vouchers, time cards, phone records — and even those restraining orders and divorce files are all there for you to see.

I was taught to assume that anything on a piece of paper is public unless the agency proves otherwise. So, be creative. I once wanted the home telephone number of the CEO of a public hospital. He wouldn't give it to me, so, I asked to review his secretary's Rolodex. His number was right there, along with others I hadn't thought to request.

The law has numerous exemptions. Plenty of criminal investigation records are exempt. Home addresses of judges, abuse investigators, firefighters and police officers are exempt. So are medical records, sealed bids and student records. The list is extensive, and lawmakers make it longer every year.

Because of those exemptions, public agencies have to black out the part that is not public and give you the rest. They also must state — in writing — which exemption in the law gives them the right to withhold the information.

One provision says that an agency can charge a "special service charge" for processing large requests. It's supposed to be "reasonable" and based on what the agency spends in terms of resources to fulfill the request.

That provision is abused. I once was billed the hourly rate for a university vice president to make photocopies.

When you figure out what you want to get, call the agency and ask for the name of the "custodian" of the records. That's who you contact for the request. Usually, the person is connected to the public information, public relations or top administrator's office.

You don't have to say why you want the documents.

You don't have to fill out special forms or even request the records in writing. Still, you will probably want to, just so there is a record of your request.

Here's how to start the letter:

"Pursuant to Florida's Public Record Law, chapter 119, I request to inspect and/or copy the following public documents:"

The "inspect and/or copy" provision is very important so you won't be charged for thousands of copies when you only need a few pages. Review them before ordering copies, which can cost 15 cents a page, or a buck each at the courthouse.

Journalism students are often assigned to pick a person, then go the courthouse, police station and other public agencies, moving from office to office to see what records are available on the person. You can find all kinds of info that way.

Large or unusual requests often generate a lot of attitude from the custodians. They make you feel like an intruder. They stall, using every possible delay tactic ("This request is soooooooo voluminous. We can't shut down our offices just to deal with you.") The juicer the records, the more they try to keep you from them.

Just remember: They work for you and the records you seek are YOURS, not THEIRS. So, never apologize for the inconvenience. They are getting paid to do their job, and part of the job is dealing with you and me.

It is a crime for them to destroy the records, but here's the problem: You generally can't prove a document existed without having the document in the first place.

When we don't get what we are looking for, we generally dig deeper. And, the deeper we dig, the more we find. One time, a college executive vice-president denied the existence of a document that would have shown a minor goof-up with an expense voucher. When he refused to state in writing that the document didn't exist, I checked his background and soon found how he'd been run out of his previous job amid allegations that he'd stolen a state car.

I fought the head of health and hospitals in Denver for some documents he swore were not public. By the time he released them, I'd already obtained two sets from sources and quickly realized that he'd hidden the best documents, which showed his use of a slush fund for his first class travel and expenses to court women with flowers and dinners out.

Often, you don't know what you are going to get when you make a request. This is called, "going fishing." Fishing expeditions make officials real mad.

Some have gotten so fed up with me that they led me to a room filled with millions of files and told me to have at it. It can take a full day to get through a single file drawer. But what they don't know is which file drawer I'll begin with, or what it will contain. On one such occasion, I opened a drawer containing a little file of postcards from a public official who'd written his secretary to tell how much fun he was having on the trips we taxpayers had paid for so he could tour New Zealand, Europe, Africa and all the places the rest of us schlubs could not afford to go. Another time, when I was reported about animal experiments at the University of Florida, I was given at least 10 boxes of correspondence from angry animal lovers from all over the world who condemned experiments in UF labs. I grabbed a handful of the letters for quotes, and the first one I looked at happened to be written actress Doris Day, who really let the researcher have it for his cruelty to dogs.

You can see why many public officials resent the public records law.

I wouldn't be too thrilled knowing that everything I did during the day was subject to review of the whole world, but that's the deal they cut when they accepted a position in the public trust.

Years ago, public officials were far less sophisticated about the reach of the law and put things in writing that they would never want others to see. A Post-it note that said, "Do we want the reporter to see these?" was once stuck to the top of a stack of letters. The lawyer who reviewed those delicious documents knew it was all public — including that wonderful little Post-it note.

I am fully aware of how skeptical the public is about journalists, and that keeps us in check. Trust me on this: When you read about a public records fight, you can bet that the newspapers or broadcast media involved are engaged in battle because they are safeguarding your right to know. Those court fights don't make our bosses richer or our paychecks fatter. They are very expensive and frustrating, because we are just trying to get what legally belongs to all of us.

You have every right to see exactly what your public servants are doing. You're the boss around town. You have more power than you know.

Contact Senior Editor Fawn Germer at [email protected].

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