State legislators go undercover: A proposed law would make addresses secret

A proposed law would make hundreds of lawmakers’ home addresses and phone numbers secret. But both a state lawmaker and a First Amendment advocate said the measure is unnecessary and a threat to democracy. 

Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Democratic state senator who represents parts of Miami-Dade from Coral Gables to Key Biscayne, said the measure, which passed a Senate committee last week, jeopardizes the public’s ability to scrutinize lawmakers.

“Florida has a strong public records law and we should all be proud of it,” he said. “Every year they chip at it, but this one includes all lawmakers. For the constitution we need to justify the changes and I don’t think the case has been made yet.” 

Barbara Petersen, president emeritus of the First Amendment Foundation, a Florida nonprofit that aims to protect the public records law, cited scores of previous exemptions. 

“There are already 1,159 exemptions to the public records law,” she said. “And there are about 36 new proposed exemptions in this legislative session.”

Of those proposed exemptions, about 20 percent aim to exempt the home addresses of government officials.

The Florida Public Records Law was passed in 1909 to open up information about government and elected officials to any person upon request. It was updated in 1995 to include electronic records. The idea is that open exchange of information is the heart of democracy.

Legislators have added exemptions to protect the personal information of some public officials, such as police officers and judges, as well as their families.

But, according to Rodriguez and Petersen, this is the first time lawmakers have proposed an exemption to protect all state legislators and Cabinet members.

Kelli Stargel, a Republican senator from Lakeland in central Florida, introduced the bill, claiming the openness threatens the security of elected officials. She is married to John Stargel, a judge in Florida’s 10th Circuit Court, and under state law their home information is exempt from public disclosure. 

She said in a committee hearing on Jan. 21 that the “animosity” she has seen toward legislators in emails and social media messages justifies blocking the information from public view. 

To Petersen and Rodriguez, her reasoning isn’t enough to change the law.

“I’m not sure why Stargel is proposing this bill,” said Petersen. “Especially since her husband is a judge and her home address is already exempt.”

Rodriguez posed the same question. 

“Many legislators, because they were prosecutors or judges or law enforcement officers, they already have their addresses protected,” he said. 

Petersen and Rodriguez are worried about the public’s right to know. If people can’t see the legislators’ addresses, they won’t be able to hold them accountable. 

“We need to make sure our legislators are living in the districts they represent,” said Petersen. “Stargel argues that the Florida Department of State verifies your district, but that doesn’t guarantee you live there.”

For example, the Miami Herald reported in 2017 that former State Rep. Daisy Baez, a Democrat representing Coral Gables, had lied in 2016 by giving an address in her district. The newspaper’s investigation found that she didn’t live there.

Baez resigned and pled guilty to a misdemeanor in 2017. 

There’s an alternative way to protect lawmakers who are in danger without undermining the public records law, Petersen said.

“They can have their home addresses exempted with a police report if in fact they’re being harassed,” said Petersen. “If someone was going to hurt you, they wouldn’t ask for a public records request. They would go to Google.”

Stargel’s measure passed the Committee on Ethics and Elections along party lines on Jan. 21, with four Republicans supporting it and three Democrats opposing it. The Democrats were all from South Florida: Bobby Powell of Palm Beach, Oscar Braynon II of Broward and Miami-Dade and Rodriguez of Miami-Dade.

The bill is now being considered in the Governmental Oversight and Accountability Committee. A similar proposal was filed in the Florida House by Erin Grall, a Republican from Vero Beach, and Mike Beltran, a Republican from Hillsborough County.

If the bill passes both the House and Senate, it’ll be up to Gov. DeSantis if the bill becomes law, but so far he has expressed opposition.

Rodriguez said he’s worried the bill could pass right before the legislature redraws congressional districts next year, because legislators could sway the drawing to fit where they live. 

The measure would only expand the list of exemptions to the law that has made Florida one of the most open-government states.

“It will be harder for the press to see what the intent of the legislator is,” he said. “I think it looks bad to protect [legislators’] home addresses so they can’t be scrutinized.”

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the date the open records law was passed.

Alejandra Marquez Janse is a Venezuelan journalism student minoring in political science. She is passionate about understanding policy and informing people on issues that affect them.