By Bill Cotterell
A coalition of open government activists spanning the political spectrum called on the Legislature Wednesday to slow its push for more exemptions to Florida’s “Sunshine” laws and put a high priority on improving public access to meetings and documents.
“Open government matters because open government breeds good governance,” Joel Chandler of Deerfield Beach, executive director of the Citizens Awareness Foundation. “I’m about as liberal as they come. This is a non-partisan issue.”
Joining Chandler in a news conference at the Florida Press Center were Catherine Baer of the Tea Party Network of Florida, First Amendment Foundation President Barbara Petersen, Brad Ashwell of Common Causeand Dan Krassner, executive director of Integrity Florida. They praised the Senate for passing bills tightening state ethics laws and public access to meetings and documents, and urged the House to follow suit in the two working weeks remaining in the 2014 session.
The Legislature is in recess this week for the Passover-Easter break.
Krassner said the coalition supports a bill by Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, which provides requests for public records do not have to be submitted in writing. Petersen said the bill also clarifies a costly wrinkle in recovering the cost of attorney fees, when public officers improperly withhold information.
She said Ring’s bill (SB 1648), unanimously approved by the Senate last month, and its House companion (HB 1151) mark “the first real improvement in public access laws in 20 years.” But Petersen said the Legislature is also likely to pass 18 to 25 new exemptions to public records and meetings laws.
“It will be a record number of new exemptions and push the total number of exemptions to both the public record law and open meeting law close to 1,100 exemptions,” she said. “There were 250 exemptions in 1985 and now there are nearly 1,100.
“The Legislature is very willing to create all of these exceptions to the constitutional right of access, but drags its heels on any attempt to improve our open government laws.”
The group also embraced a bill (SB 846) by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, allowing the Ethics Commission to initiate some cases and tightening restrictions on lobbying by local officials. Ashwell said the proposal also extends ethics laws to board members of quasi-governmental agencies like Enterprise Florida.
He also praised Latvala’s bill (SB 602) requiring public officials to live in the districts they represent.
“Now is the time for our lawmakers to move forward on ethics reform legislation that strengthens our ethics laws, move forward on open government provisions that make government more transparent, not secretive,” said Krassner.
Ashwell said the group is concerned about legislation that would change operations of some city and county ethics panels, requiring them to use hearing officers to examine complaints. He said the bills (SB 1474 and HB 1315) provide no criteria for the hearing officers to make findings and could result in prolonged, expensive hearings — effectively quashing complaints simply by complicating the process.
“This would have a chilling effect on local ethics boards,” said Krassner. He said the coalition is working with Sen. Joe Abruzzo, D-Wellington, on clarifying amendments to improve the legislation.
Contact reporter Bill Cotterell at bcotterelL@thefloridacurrent.com