Citrus County Chronicle Editorial
March 15, 2017
THE ISSUE: Florida legislators and bills to cloud the Sunshine.
OUR OPINION: We need to keep eyes on their actions.
It happens every year. Amid the many bills state legislators consider during their committee meetings and the two-month legislative session, there are always some introducing yet more exemptions to the Sunshine law. During the 60 years of Florida’s Government in the Sunshine, more than 1,100 exemptions have been enacted.
This year, though, in addition to tracking and reporting on bills seeking Sunshine exemptions, the Florida First Amendment Foundation will also track legislators’ votes on the most important bills.
The scoring system, drafted by First Amendment Foundation president Barbara Peterson, will assign points in connection with the top government openness bills this legislative session. Lawmakers will gain or lose points depending on their actions for or against government openness. The scores will be translated into letter grades, with perfectly neutral legislators getting a C grade.
Florida’s Government-in-the-Sunshine Law provides a basic right of access to most meetings of boards, commissions and other governing bodies of state and local governmental agencies or authorities, according to the Florida Attorney General’s website.
But the devil is always in the details. Peterson said members of the public don’t understand how exemptions affect them (if they even know about them) but even worse, legislators aren’t always aware of all the implications as they vote.
There is already one bill on the hit list for the new scoring system, a rework of one that was shot down in the last legislative session. Proposed by a Sarasota senator, it would make attorney fees optional in open records lawsuits that a government agency loses — thus raising the barrier for citizens trying to hold governing bodies accountable.
Peterson said she wants legislators to scrutinize bills for implications to government openness. For example, some restrictions increase costs or introduce delays in obtaining public records — issues problematic for government agencies and for members of the public.
A number of organizations already score legislators on how they vote vis-a-vis the organization’s pet cause. This effort by the First Amendment Foundation will do the same, but its cause is one affecting all Floridians.
We said it before, but it bears repeating: Every Florida citizen is responsible for holding elected officials accountable for doing the publics business, and doing it wisely. It’s a double whammy on voters for legislators to waste our time and money working on ways to avoid being held accountable. Keep track of the Open Government scorecard, and tell your legislators how you feel about proposed exemptions to Government in the Sunshine. [READ MORE]