By Jeff Burlew
Democrat senior writer @JeffBurlew on Twitter
A coalition of government- watchdog groups called on Florida lawmakers to approve ethics and open-government bills that have passed the Senate but stalled in the House.
Participating in a news conference Wednesday at the Florida Press Center were Integrity Florida, the First Amendment Foundation, Common Cause Florida, the Citizens Awareness Foundation and The Tea Party Network.
“Now’s 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 (more) secretive,” said Dan Krassner, executive director of Integrity Florida.
The groups are asking legislators to take action on a legislation (SB 1648 and HB 1151) that would make a number of changes to Florida’s sunshine laws and another (SB 846) that would put in place new ethics requirements for local officials and quasi-government agencies. Senate bill 1648 and SB 846 passed unanimously in the Senate on March 26 but have since been held up in the House.
Senate bill 1648, cosponsored by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, and its House companion would codify numerous court decisions over the years saying citizens are not required to put public records requests in writing without a specific statutory authority, said Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation.
“It’s a stumbling block,” she said. “There are people who do not want to identify themselves, who do not want to put their request in writing. And case law says they don’t have to do that. This simply codifies that.”
The bills would allow citizens to make records requests over the phone, Petersen said. It also would require state agencies to train employees on public-records laws and limit the cost of fees for “voluminous or complicated” records requests.
Senate bill 846 would prohibit local officers from lobbying the Legislature or state agencies on behalf of private clients, though they could still lobby on behalf of their own local government. The bill defines local officers as state attorneys, public defenders, sheriffs, tax collectors, property appraisers, supervisors of election, circuit court clerks, county commissioners, school-board members, school superintendents and elected city officers except those from small cities.
The bill, which does not include lawmakers in the lobbying ban, also would extend state ethics requirements to quasi-government entities like Enterprise Florida and allow the Florida Commission on Ethics to initiate proceedings without first getting a complaint against officials who fail to file financial disclosures and reach the maximum fine amount.