March 25, 2019
This year’s legislative session could be the best of news and the worst of news for Floridians’ access to the inner workings of their government.
Today, we’re going to look at the bright spots. Barbara Petersen, president of Florida’s First Amendment Foundation, is tracking a group of bills that would expand, and solidify, government’s responsibility to keep its residents informed — and underscore the public’s right to speak before their elected leaders act on their behalf. People can’t participate in civic life if they don’t know what officials are doing — and once they’ve found out, they should have the right to tell their leaders what they think.
Those bills include:
• House Bill 285/Senate Bill 518: Requires advance publication of meeting agendas, and guarantees the right of the public to speak at meetings. This bill should resonate strongly with residents in several cities across Volusia and Flagler counties, who have been rightfully incensed to see controversial issues pop up during comment periods, or be added to agendas at the last minute. If this bill becomes law, meeting agendas — with all supporting materials and attachments — would have to be published at least three days before a meeting, and be available for inspection at the meeting.
• HB 407/SB 602: Prohibits governments from suing residents who have made public-records requests. Why do government officials have to be explicitly told not to sue their own constituents for requesting information to which they have a constitutional right? We’re not sure — and yet, it’s happened. The South Florida Water Management District dragged a small non-profit and a citizen activist into court last year, and threatened to sue others. And cities are pushing back — Petersen, sounding appalled, quotes one lobbyist for the city of Orlando as saying these lawsuits are a “useful tool” for local governments. That’s like saying a baseball bat is a useful tool in a dispute between neighbors.