May 3, 2017
For people who care about open government, the good news from Tallahassee this week is that a bill that would have let two members of the same government board talk in secret with one another died in the Florida House.
The bad news is that for all the lip service politicians pay to transparency, a majority of state representatives — including eight from Broward and Palm Beach Counties — voted 68-48 for HB 843, which would have sanctioned private meetings between two members of a school board, county commission or any other government body with at least five members. And that’s almost all of them.
The bill said they couldn’t talk about contracts, appropriations or rule changes, or take any formal action. But how would anyone ever know? They wouldn’t have had to tell anyone they’d even talked. And no minutes would have been required.
“You can just ask them,” said Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Naples, the bill’s sponsor.
eriously? If city commissioners approve a contract with no public debate, citizens are supposed to ask if they’d first played a game of telephone tag?
And they’re supposed to admit they did?
The only way this law would have been enforceable is if someone snitched.
“This would have gutted the Sunshine Law,” says Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation. “It would reverse 50 years of public policy.”
The Florida Constitution gives citizens a right of access to any meeting where public business will be discussed, and that means we have a right of access to the entire deliberative process, Petersen says.
Fortunately, this assault on the public’s right to know died because of a constitutional amendment passed in 2002 that requires any proposed exemption to the Sunshine Law to pass each legislative chamber by a two-thirds vote.
Leading this attack on open government was House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who finishes this session in a far different light than when it began.
In November, Corcoran promised his chamber would set a national standard for transparency with new rules for how members would operate. Yet with the session nearing its end, this iron-fisted speaker holed up with Florida Senate President Joe Negron, just like others before them.
Corcoran and Negron announced Wednesday they’d reached a deal on how to spend a new $83 billion state budget, though neither offered details.
“It’s the first time in memory that so much of the budget negotiations were conducted in private,” reports Steve Bousquet, longtime Capitol bureau chief of the Tampa Bay Times. And “on the 58th day of the 60-day session, it’s still largely a secret which projects got funded and which ones didn’t.”
Secret meetings are an efficient way to do business, no question. It’s how the leaders of Florida’s legislative chambers have long secured pet projects, including that secret airport hanger that led a former House speaker to resign in disgrace not so long ago.
Seven local representatives deserve our thanks for voting against this bad bill, starting with Reps. Kristin Jacobs, D-Coconut Creek; and Joe Geller, D-Dania Beach, who helped lead the charge. Standing with them were Reps. Lori Berman, D-Lantana; Sharon Pritchett, D-Miramar; Barrington Russell, D-Lauderhill; Emily Slosberg, D-Boca Raton; and Richard Stark, R-Weston.
Those voting to undermine open government were Reps. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah; Bobby Dubose, D-Fort Lauderdale; Katie Edwards, D-Sunrise; Patrica Hawkins-Williams, D-Lauderdale Lakes; Al Jacquet, D-Lantana; Shevrin Jones, D-West Park; Jared Moskowitz, D-Coral Springs; and Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach.
Moskowitz said Wednesday a fellow member hit the wrong button for him and he immediately amended his vote, though the official tally remains the same. He said Jenne, who also changed his vote later and could not be reached for comment, ran into the same problem.
Bill Hager, R-Boca Raton, voted for the bill but after roll call. He’s officially listed as missing the vote along with George Moraitis, R-Fort Lauderdale, and Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami.
Edwards explained her vote this way: “It’s silly to me that the mayor of Plantation can’t look to a council member and say, “What do you think of this?” She emphasized that the bill wouldn’t allow members to discuss votes or procurement.
Said Jones: “To say you have to hash everything out in the open, I just don’t think everything has to be hashed out in that manner.”
Fortunately, the citizens of Florida think otherwise. They said so in the Constitution.
Let us remember the names of those who disagree. [READ MORE]