By Sara Matthis and Mandy Miles
Government transparency is getting a little murky.
Recent changes to the Florida Constitution and a county contract with a private company have limited the public’s — and media’s — access to information formerly considered a matter of public record. The Florida Highway Patrol is no longer identifying the names of accident victims, and Monroe County officials can no longer provide hotel occupancy and other data compiled by STR, a private data company that contracts with governments, hotels and other tourism-related entities to analyze their visitor statistics.
First, the FHP changes:
On Jan. 5, a 58-year-old male bicyclist was killed in an accident at the intersection of Sadowski Causeway and Overseas Highway in the Middle Keys. Unfortunately, it’s an all-too-common accident. What’s different, though, is the Florida Highway Patrol is no longer identifying victims of vehicular accidents.
The Keys Weekly asked for the accident report, and was provided with a redacted copy of the accident report, meaning the report identified neither the occupants of the vehicle nor the bicyclist.
Lt. Alex Comacho of FHP said the complete and unredacted report won’t be available for 60 days. A public record request will also come with a $10 fee for the report.
The change is due to a revision to Florida’s constitution designed to protect victims of crimes. The FHP is omitting all names from news releases, regardless of whether investigators suspect a crime was committed.
The amendment to Florida’s Constitution was passed in 2018 by 62% of voters and took effect in January 2019. The amendment prevents “disclosure of information or records that could be used to locate or harass the victim or the victim’s family, or which could disclose confidential or privileged information of the victim.”
As for the county’s hotel data from STR:
The Keys Weekly on Jan. 11 requested from the Monroe County Tourist Development Council hotel occupancy information for the Christmas and New Year holidays. The TDC provided the reports, as it always has, but also included a note that said, “For data beginning Jan. 1, 2021, STR no longer allows us to release the requested information. I encourage you to contact STR directly to obtain the requested information. STR asserts that some or all of the requested information and/or data is exempt from your public records request as a ‘trade secret’ under Florida law.”
The Keys Weekly then followed up with the county attorney’s office, and received an explanation from assistant county attorney Christine Limbert-Barrows, who said the county recently renewed its two-year contract with STR for $27,700 per year.
“In our latest contract with STR, they assert that their Destination Reports and STR data is confidential and proprietary information and exempt from public record disclosure,” wrote Limbert-Barrows, who also provided the specific state statutes that outline the public record exemptions for information that’s considered a trade secret. “In accordance with our contract with STR, we are limited in what we can disclose under their external sharing guidelines and adherence to their assertion of a trade secret exemption under public records law. … We negotiated with STR for many months on this current contract and while STR limited our ability to release STR reports and data, at the end of the day, the information is a vital marketing and research tool which is needed for TDC operations.”
When the Keys Weekly contacted STR’s media representatives directly, we received a quick response and were told by STR’s communication director Nick Minerd, “We are not involved in these types of contracts, but I would not be surprised if there was a change in terms as it relates to republishing and sharing of reports with third parties. There will be some changes like this as we integrate our product with our parent company, CoStar Group.”
CoStar, a provider of commercial real estate data, bought STR in late 2019 and initiated changes to the availability of STR’s data.
“With all that said, STR still provides media with data,” Minerd wrote to the Keys Weekly. He later followed up and provided us with the 2020 year-end occupancy data for the Florida Keys.
While media outlets no longer can request Keys hotel data from the county’s TDC, it seems it’s still available directly from STR, the company that collects and compiles it.