Fare game: Uber subsidies and cost to taxpayers: Where We Stand

No doubt five Central Florida cities had good intentions when they cut deals last year to use taxpayer dollars to subsidize rides from Uber drivers within their boundaries. The ride-hailing service could move passengers between SunRail stations and their ultimate destinations, encouraging more use of the commuter train, easing traffic on local roads and reducing the demand for parking.

But everyone knows where good intentions can lead.

As the Sentinel’s Ryan Gillespie reported this week, the cities — Maitland, Lake Mary, Sanford, Altamonte Springs and Longwood — agreed not to reveal the financial details of their transactions with Uber, including the total trips and total fares. The multinational company, which has a stock market value of tens of billions of dollars, told the cities the information amounted to “trade secrets,” which are exempt from the disclosure requirement for public records in Florida’s law and constitution.

First Amendment Foundation President Barbara Petersen, the foremost authority on public records law in Florida, told us that she doesn’t think all of the information in question would qualify as trade secrets. She doesn’t see how, for example, the total amount that governments pay Uber, and the number of rides they subsidize, would meet the law’s definition as information that gives the company an advantage over its competitors. But that information would at least provide some basic details for taxpayers to evaluate how much bang they’re getting for their bucks.

The cities were right to pursue ways to take advantage of mass transit, but they sold out their taxpayers when they caved to Uber’s demand for secrecy. There’s no sign the cities even put up a fight.

It wasn’t the first example of Florida government entities skirting their legal and constitutional obligation to make public records accessible by signing it away in a contract with a private vendor. In 2015, Visit Florida agreed to a confidentiality clause, also based on an overly broad notion of trade secrets, when it hired rapper Pitbull to promote the state in his concerts, videos and social-media posts. In the copy of the 11-page contract that the agency released, almost all of the details — even the name of the rapper’s agent — were obscured by black ink.

After state House Speaker Richard Corcoran filed a lawsuit seeking the financial details, Pitbull released the original contract, revealing he made a cool million bucks for his modest efforts. In the embarrassing wake of that disclosure, Gov. Rick Scott forced out Visit Florida’s CEO. Had the agency known the contract would eventually leak, it might have cut a better deal for taxpayers.

Also in 2015, the University of Central Florida declined to disclose the details of its contract with former football coach George O’Leary, arguing that the school had no choice but to comply with his demand for confidentiality. When he abruptly retired mid-season with the team’s record at 0-8, the public learned that his secret contract included a $700,000 exit payment — a golden parachute that might not have survived earlier public disclosure. A chastened UCF said it would release at least the outlines of coaches’ contracts going forward.

Whether it’s legal to hide how tax dollars are spent from the public under some limited circumstances is a question for lawyers to debate. But deciding whether the cities’ information blackout on their contracts with Uber is right, and whether it lives up to the spirit of Florida’s open records law, doesn’t require a law degree. The common-sense answer is no.