Florida lawmakers need to take a stand for open government, rather than allowing barriers to stand in the way of public records.
They have a chance to do so by passing SB 1648. The measure would mark the most significant strengthening of the state’s open government laws in two decades, said Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee.
The legislation would prevent government agencies from charging excessive fees for public records, a particular problem with state universities.
The measure would clarify that agencies can’t ask that records requests be in writing. It would also require training of government employees in public-record requirements, among other provisions.
Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford pledged to support open government as part of their shared agenda for this legislative session. The Senate fulfilled its end of the bargain by passing the bill on a 39-0 vote.
But now the measure has stalled in the House. Weatherford must show that his call for increased government accountability is more than lip service.
To be sure, the bill isn’t perfect. Concerns from the Florida League of Cities led to some provisions being watered down. But the measure would help increase government transparency at a time when the trend has been toward secrecy.
The Legislature recently passed a bill to allow some “stand your ground” court records to be sealed from public view. Petersen said the session has been a “banner year” for proposed public-records exemptions.
Lawmakers need to stop creating obstacles to obtaining records and show they’re still committed to open government. SB 1648 would be a major step in the right direction.