Orlando Sentinel Editorial
March 12, 2017
Your right to know how government works is dying a slow death. Mark 2017 on your calendar because if current trends continue and Tallahassee passes what’s proposed this year, citizens face a tipping point in lost access to public meetings and public records needed to hold government accountable.
Florida’s famous Sunshine Law, which guarantees your right of access, now has nearly 1,200 exemptions, with another 56 proposed this year. Since the media’s last annual check-up on open government, we’re sorry to report — on this Sunshine Sunday — that things have gotten worse.
Poor excuses for secrecy
Under the cloak of protecting privacy, state officials are hiding more details about seniors killed in nursing homes, children killed in foster care and prisoners killed in prisons.
Under the guise of economic development and protecting trade secrets, state law continues to hide how much public money is given companies for incentives and how much vendors are paid by contract.
At a national level over the past year, we watched Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, Vice President Mike Pence and now EPA Secretary Scott Pruitt explain their use of private emails for public business in their former government roles.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott has used personal email for public business, too. We only know this because a Tallahassee lawyer, in a lawsuit about the Governor’s Mansion, found a series of private Gmail accounts that the governor and his staff set up to conduct public business. To settle that suit two years ago, taxpayers paid $700,000.
More recently on the Treasure Coast, Martin County commissioners were found to have “engaged in a pattern of violating the Public Records Act” by conducting public business on private email. As a result, county taxpayers learned two weeks ago that they must pay $371,800 for someone’s attorney’s fees.
Trouble ahead in Tallahassee
It seems public officials never learn. And with last week’s opening of the annual legislative session, storm clouds are here again.
Another bill would shield photos or videos of someone being killed. Remember the video of those boot-camp guards beating that teenager to death? Or that police officer shooting an unarmed black man in the back? If this bill passes, you won’t see such videos again.
There’s even a bill to hide the names of people who witness a murder, presumably to encourage more people to come forward. But how would that work? Would witnesses wear a bag over their heads in court?
The biggest threat to your right to know is Senate Bill 1004 and House Bill 843, which would let two members of a public board or commission (with more than five members) meet in private to discuss pressing issues, a proposal that would overturn 50 years of public policy. By the time citizens would know what politicians are up to, their chance for input would be long gone.
Weakening a hammer for citizens
If another bill by Sen. Greg Steube of Sarasota passes, you’d have to prove “by a preponderance of evidence” that government officials intentionally violated the law to secure a guarantee of having your attorney fees reimbursed.Having to pay your attorney fees is the only consequence now facing public officials who illegally withhold public records from you. If this hammer is weakened — changing the word “shall” to “may” — it will create a chilling effect on your ability to pursue the paper trail behind zoning decisions, school boundary changes or criminal justice decisions, for example.
Steube and a chorus of politicians argue that a cottage industry has grown up around public records requests, involving lawyers who want to trip up government officials and force settlements, plus attorney fees. From what we know, only one such person continues this reprehensible practice. And media attorneys have volunteered to help any government targeted by this bad actor.
Open government advocates have offered compromises. One would require five days notice — plenty of time for officials to respond — before a lawsuit can be filed. Another would prevent bad actors from getting attorney fees reimbursed if their real purpose was to trigger a violation of the Sunshine Law.
But citizens don’t have lobbyists in Tallahassee. Governments do. So Steube’s bad bill is rolling through committees.
We hope you agree this Sunshine Sunday that democracy depends on an informed citizenry.If so, we hope you’ll join our urgent call for elected leaders, especially those in Tallahassee, to keep the shades of government open and let the sunshine in. [READ MORE]