Miami Herald by Kristen M. Clark
May 22, 2017
From temporarily shielding the identities of murder witnesses to permanently sealing millions of criminal and arrest records, state lawmakers did more this spring than they have in all but one of the past 22 years to chip away at Floridians’ constitutional guarantees to access government records and observe meetings of their elected officials.
The Legislature passed 17 new provisions — and reauthorized six others — that create carve-outs in the state’s Sunshine Law, according to a tally by the First Amendment Foundation, a non-profit organization that advocates for transparency in government and has annually tracked Sunshine-related legislation.
The number of exemptions this year is the second-most since 1995 — five fewer than the record 22 exemptions lawmakers passed in 2014, said Barbara Petersen, president of the foundation, of which the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times are members.
“Every exemption that’s created is an exception to the Florida Constitution,” Petersen said, calling the trend “very disturbing.”
Consistent with past years, all of this year’s new exemptions passed both chambers on unanimous or near-unanimous votes. Many still await approval from Gov. Rick Scott on whether they should become law.
“It seems in this Legislature, they can’t agree on medical marijuana, they can’t agree on major issues — but they can agree on impeding the public’s right to oversight,” Petersen said.
Among the new exemptions approved, SB 118 could virtually eliminate Floridians’ access to many individuals’ criminal histories.
If Scott signs it into law, it would require clerks to seal more than 2.7 million criminal records and hundreds of thousands of arrest records for individuals who were found not guilty, acquitted at trial, had charges against them dropped or dismissed, or weren’t charged after being arrested.
Bill sponsor and Sarasota Republican Sen. Greg Steube said the proposal would remove a stigma for people who aren’t convicted in a court of law, but the First Amendment Foundation wants Scott to veto it on the grounds that it “constitutes a significant threat to the public safety.”
In a letter to Scott, Petersen wrote that one consequence would be that employers couldn’t check the criminal history of job candidates — for instance, an applicant seeking employment at a daycare center who might have been charged, but not convicted, multiple times for criminal acts against a child.
The high number of exemptions this year came in a session when House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, set high expectations by pledging to “set a record for openness and transparency.”
Many observers, including Petersen, say Corcoran failed to live up to that promise, because budget negotiations were shrouded in secrecy and the House, in particular, advanced several highly consequential Sunshine exemptions that — although many didn’t pass — sought to gut the spirit of the Constitution’s open government guarantees.
Petersen last week, however, was heavily critical of Corcoran — calling his promise of openness “baloney” in hindsight. She also noted that under Corcoran’s leadership with Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, this year’s budget was crafted in “one of the least transparent processes I’ve ever seen” in her 25 years in Tallahassee.
“These were major policy decisions being made in secret. That’s not typical at all — and it’s very bothersome,” she said of the budget. “I’ve never seen anything like this.” (Because of the lack of openness, the First Amendment Foundation is calling for Scott to veto the main budget act.)