The Florida First Amendment Foundation issued a scorecard that stamps a red frowny face on bad bills the Legislature approved during its regular session.
The scorecard contains four of those sad, scarlet visages –— each indicating a new way that Florida officials have concocted to keep information away from regular Floridians.
We’ll talk about some of the bad bills in a minute. But all of those bad bills together don’t add up to an outrage as deep and shocking as last year’s actions –— and inactions — by Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet when they trashed the state’s cherished Government in the Sunshine Law and traditions to fire former Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey.
Yielding to overwhelming evidence, the governor and Cabinet members Attorney General Pam Bondi, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater recently agreed to settle a lawsuit brought by media organizations including the Sun Sentinel, the Orlando Sentinel and the Miami Herald. The lawsuit described blatant skirting of the state’s sunshine regulations. Settling it, rather than fighting it, was the right thing to do.
The right thing to do also includes adhering to new procedures the governor and Cabinet agreed to adopt. Those new rules closely track the transgressions that occurred. Aides aren’t allowed to serve as go-betweens to cut secret deals. If Cabinet aides have meetings in private, they must be recorded and made available on the Internet. When public business is conducted via personal email, the email has to be promptly forwarded to a public account. The position of FDLE chief, filled by Rick Swearingen after Bailey’s improper firing, has to be reconsidered, and all future appointments have to take place in bright sunshine.
That settlement, which also requires Sunshine Law training for senior staff members of the governor and Cabinet, is a big win for the state’s open government laws. Some of the Legislature’s actions went in the opposite direction. Lawmakers created a public records exemption for information that could identify current and former members of the armed forces. They also exempted from public view email addresses collected by tax collectors and the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.
Those kinds of exemptions make it tougher and more time-consuming to respond to requests for public information, since the records first have to be scoured to remove exempted material. The Legislature also created a public records exemption for some recordings taken by police wearing body cameras.
It is encouraging that many bad bills failed to pass the Legislature. But each year’s newly approved list of exemptions from public records requirements chips away at Floridians’ right to know what government is doing.
In addition to preserving Florida’s open government tradition, it is important to expose and hold accountable those who violate Sunshine Law provisions. So it’s good that the settlement the Cabinet approved in the Bailey case requires the state to pay $55,000 to cover plaintiffs’ legal costs. When all the costs for all the attorneys are included, the total is expected to be about $225,000.
We don’t suppose Scott will crow about that expense while crisscrossing the state to brag about protecting taxpayers. Neither should Atwater, who is supposed to watch expenditures like a hawk, be proud of his role. Bondi — who as attorney general is supposed to know and follow the law — ought to be particularly chastened. It is unfortunate that Putnam emphasized that the Cabinet has not admitted any wrongdoing.
That’s not encouraging, since good faith on his part and by his colleagues is essential to actually making this settlement work. If they think they did nothing wrong, the temptation to relapse into secrecy will be hard to resist.
It would be so much more promising if Scott, Bondi, Putnam and Atwater were obviously and painfully embarrassed by what happened.
In their case, the public could have more confidence in government in the sunshine if this episode were marked by four red faces.
Original article here.