July 9, 2019
Chances are good that, unless you’re a Florida journalist or lawmaker, you’ve never heard of Barbara Petersen.
But you should nevertheless thank her.
For the past quarter-century, Petersen has been fighting for your right to get public records and attend meetings and against the state’s growing fondness for secrecy. Now she’s leaving her post as president of the First Amendment Foundation, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to ensuring Florida remains an open government state.
We’d like to say that Petersen prevailed in her fight for openness, but no such luck. She won a few and lost a few, but spent much of her career working against a climate of growing indifference and even hostility toward open government.
A prime example this past spring: House Bill 407. This measure would have stopped local governments from using the courts to intimidate citizens who dare to make a public records request.
It’s a strategy more governments have been using to discourage people from asking for records. Cities and counties that get a public records request are supposed to either provide the records or cite an exemption in the law.
Instead, when someone makes a request, governments are asking a judge to decide if the records are public, knowing full well the person who made the request might not have the money, time or stomach for a court fight.
This bill was a slam dunk, an easy opportunity for the state to stop local governments from using the courts to bludgeon the people they’re supposed to represent.
The bill passed the state House unanimously, and then went on to die in a Senate committee.
The Legislature was even more dismissive of an attempt to require that local governments and other public agencies publish their agendas three days ahead of a meeting and provide some specific guidelines for allowing people to be heard at public meetings.
That bill died in House and Senate committees, never even getting a vote.