Should We Respect the Ideas in Public Records, No Matter How Silly They Are?

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Here's a conundrum. Last week, via the environmentalist group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, we got wind of some notes from a meeting of state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) officials last year that showed some unorthodox -- some might say laughable -- ideas. Our brief blog item on the subject was largely based on PEER's news release and shared its derision of three pretty bad ideas for how to make money off state land.

We might be playing a dangerous game here. After all, the notes were released to PEER thanks to Florida's strong public-records laws, which more often than not are the lifeblood of organizations like ours looking to see how government functions. Calling out an official for lying or unveiling a coverup is one thing. But when public records are obtained, then publicized, just to make the people generating and providing them look silly?

Well, if some asshat politician tries to trim back public records availability, he might well use behavior like ours as an excuse.

Let's establish some givens: As newspaper-type people, we believe in the free transfer of information, the transparency and accountability of government agencies, and the First Amendment right to spout off whatever vitriolic sass we see fit when outraged, perplexed, or miffed by the ridiculous stuff that happens in Florida government.

But over the weekend, I was wondering if just getting information, especially half-baked ideas in the form of notes, and flouncing it around as stupidity goes too far. We all write stupid things in our notebooks. Mine, for example, is oven riddled with little observances and notes to self that I jot down during interviews and would not exactly lobby for any other breathing human to see, ever. Public officials, tasked with putting together complicated ideas and managing not only narratives but millions of actual people, need to take notes too. And thanks to Florida State Statutes section 119, those notes are open to you and me.

So are the minutes-like notes taken by a DEP official at that meeting in which officials discussed building wood-pellet factories in Florida's forests and exporting the product to other countries, to beat out competitors like Georgia. Or moving state offices into state parks (the least bad of the ideas). Or selling state land to other countries? Germany, maybe?

The commentary accompanying the notes was clearly an effort to record off-the-cuff conversations among those present. DEP spokesperson Jennifer Diaz stresses this in her response to the Pulp:

The aim of the strategic planning session was to bring ideas to the table for discussion and review all aspects of the idea to see if it would be a viable option for DEP. Ideas discussed at the planning session were not "schemes" as PEER described, but an exercise to encourage staff to think of ways we can better protect our environment.

Jerry Phillips, the Florida field director of PEER and a former DEP lawyer, says he got the records after researching developments in DEP's enforcement strategies, which his organization tracks. He ran across a memo referring to the above-mentioned planning session and decided to file a public-records request for notes from that meeting. He got three sets of notes, one of which contained the ideas in question. Phillips' group serves as a watchdog and advocacy organization, and it's natural that it would take a stand by framing those records however it wants.

But for news outlets, that's the conundrum. Public records are an easy, legally protected source of outlandish stuff that could well forebode a dangerous direction for our state's resources. On the other hand, if officials know that everything they write down might be made the subject of a one-way abuse train driven by us sarcastic bloggers, they might do the unthinkable and stop taking as many notes or stop providing them.

Of course, making state agencies uncomfortable can't be all bad. Especially when they want to go into the wood-pellet business and hold a fire sale of state-owned lands. That's stuff people should know about, no matter how casually it's jotted down.

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Self-censorship is always a bad idea, always. It's a capitulation in advance, an unholy alliance with those who would throttle us. If anything, we should be a steady, reliable source of irritation to those who would have us be quiet. ("Comfort the afflicted; and afflict the comfortable.") Besides, there is (as always) a simpler, less fascist solution to this problem--provide context and clarification: Context:  PEER put out a press release publicizing what it calls some "truly astonishing schemes," culled from meeting notes and marginalia from the session. It's not clear that any of these ideas would actually be acted upon or taken seriously, and nobody should be demonized for making note of harebrained ideas. "Florida Department of Environmental Protection Meeting Produced Some Strange Ideas For Making Money Off State Land" The Pulp, May 31, 2012. (Italics mine) Clarification: "The commentary accompanying the notes was clearly an effort to record off-the-cuff conversations among those present. DEP spokesperson Jennifer Diaz stresses this in her response to the Pulp..." From this article, above. See? We know how to do this, and without censors. Anyone who reads the above will see the notes in their proper light, unless they're deliberately reading in bad faith--a common enough practice, but not one that censorship can fix.

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