“We’re asking you to trust us.”
— Steve Crisafulli, April 21, 2015 That’s easy for him to say — easy for House Republicans to hear — because they were in the room.
The other 19 million people of Florida were locked out. It’s their money, their lives, their environment and their schools that are affected by what the Legislature does. It’s just none of their business.
Trust is automatic in the lockstep ranks of Republican legislators, who hardly needed reassurance. But public trust is something you’d think politicians would want to cultivate. Public officials privately discussing public business at public expense in public buildings on public time is not a way to make the public trust them.
Yet that’s what House Republicans did last week for about an hour. Speaker Crisafulli said afterward no legislation was discussed and that his legal counsel assured him the closed caucus complied with Florida’s “Government in the Sunshine” laws and legislative rules. So “not illegal” is the lofty standard to which they aspire.
Instead of questions about Medicaid expansion and funding of the “low income pool” for hospitals, Crisafulli maladroitly changed the subject to, “Why couldn’t you meet openly?” My photo of Associated Press reporter Gary Fineout pressing his ear against the door was on the Tallahassee Democrat front page the next day, and video clips of members going to and from the caucus made the evening news, as well as social media.
Fineout relayed snatches of Crisafulli’s remarks to us, including an admonition to “stand like a rock” against Senate budget priorities, along with that “trust us” line.
Secret sessions of the whole House or Senate, not just one party, were common when Democrats ruled.
On Jan. 26, 1967, four reporters were forcibly ejected from the Senate’s public gallery in one of those “only in Florida” situations. Three weeks into a special session, a federal judge said the Legislature was unconstitutionally apportioned, and the attorney general indicated it could not legally do anything except draw proper lines. The Senate met the next day and immediately voted to clear the chamber — supposedly to discuss Gov. Claude Kirk’s executive suspensions.
That may have been legal to do behind closed doors, but the Legislature wasn’t legally able to do anything but redistrict itself. Everyone knew senators really meant to talk about that (hint: when you’re going to talk about department heads, you usually don’t bring maps.) So the scribes left the press area and took seats around the empty visitor’s section.
Other reporters, who hadn’t arrived for the morning prayer and pledge of allegiance, beat on the chamber doors and tried to join the Press Corps Four. Miami Herald reporters Bill Mansfield (later editorial editor of the Democrat) and John McDermott, Don Pride of the St. Petersburg Times and Rex Newman of the Perry Newspapers were physically removed by the sergeant-at-arms staff.
“I’d fire them,” huffed Sen. Ben Hill Griffin of Frostproof, calling the defiance “a slap in the face.” Senate President Verle Pope of St. Augustine said, “Without law and order, we can have but one thing, and that’s anarchy.”
The ink-stained anarchists didn’t go to jail. Eventually, the old Pork Chop Gang gave way to younger, more urban, diverse legislators. Within a few years, they passed laws that said they had to conduct public business in public.
Except when they don’t feel like it. There are ways around the law.
Open government is a state of mind, like other virtues. If you want to be open, you will; if you don’t, you won’t.
The presiding officers continued to meet privately with budget chiefs and other leaders, usually late in sessions. The attitude was, if reporters somehow forced their way into a meeting, do they think they’d see the real business? No, members would make nice and smile and, when the reporters left to tell that story, they’d go somewhere private, maybe one of those little rooms at the old Silver Slipper, and cut the real deal.
After some secret committee meetings in 1981, the leadership was sued by 13 news organizations and, in 1984, the state Supreme Court washed its hands of legislative procedures. Six years later, the Constitution was amended to make each chamber “the sole judge for the interpretation, implementation, and enforcement” of what will be public.
One other thing Crisafulli was overheard telling GOP members last Tuesday was, “You’re going to get beat up in the press.”
Right, but it wasn’t just the press he was excluding, it was the people of Florida. If all 19 million of them show up, they need a bigger room. If not, they should admit the citizens who do show up — the ones with an ear pressed to the door.
Original article here.