The Daytona News-Journal
July 8, 2019
Over the decades, many full-of-themselves lawmakers have buckled under the steely weight of Barbara Petersen’s gaze. Or maybe it’s her mastery of the Sternly Worded Letter that does the trick.
Both are backed by the inarguable reality that Petersen is one of the top open-government lawyers in the nation. As president of Florida’s First Amendment Foundation, she’s spent more than 25 years fighting off attempts by elected officials to conduct public business behind closed doors, while defending Floridians’ right to access public records, providing training in Sunshine-law compliance and finding attorneys for individuals forced to fight for access to records or meetings.
Even though she recently announced plans to retire at the end of 2019, her influence will make Florida government stronger and more accountable for a long time to come.
She’s not always successful, of course. Sometimes she thinks she has a deal, only to find she’s been double-crossed. And over the past years, politicians have grown increasingly brazen about shutting out the public.
Petersen is entrusted with the collective voice of nearly every media outlet in Florida, and the moral authority that comes from looking out for the interests of the people to monitor their own government. And she can back her play with the strong protections set out in the state constitution. Those require any public-records exemption or closed meeting to serve a narrowly defined purpose, and go only as far as needed to achieve that end.
Still, that doesn’t stop lawmakers from trying, again and again, to block the public’s right to information — as Petersen puts it, “They just keep popping up like Whack-a-Mole.”
The number of exemptions to Florida’s laws has reached 1,130 as of the recent legislative session. Some pass muster, addressing items — such as Social Security numbers of public employees or clients of public agencies— that need to be protected. Others are not. Petersen is frequently frustrated by attempts to block information in one agency’s records when the same information is readily available elsewhere.