The Florida Times-Union Editorial
June 23, 2017
Pardon our cynicism, but when it comes to the Florida Legislature’s attitude toward open government, it is based on experience.
Every year the Legislature passes exemptions to the state’s proud open government and public records laws. The number has now reached 1,122.
It’s enough to depress Barbara Peterson, who leads the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee.
Every year more exemptions are passed. And every year the state’s newspapers through the First Amendment Foundation try to limit the damage.
Some bills have noble motives but are overly broad or poorly written. In those cases, Peterson works with legislative committees to try to sharpen the focus.
One example of a bad bill that seems to have noble intentions was House Bill 111 that would shield those who have witnessed murders.
The bill was based on fear, not on actual incidents.
It was not necessary since agencies like Crime Stoppers already shield witnesses from being identified. And judges in criminal trials already have the ability to protect identities of witnesses.
And it was overly broad and poorly written in that even the definition of witness was unclear.
Another unnecessary bill was a House Bill 351 that would make secret the identifying information of an applicant for president, vice president, provost, or dean of any state university or state colleges like FSCJ. In fact, Florida universities have had great success in hiring college presidents and leaders within our open government rules. In fact, those rules probably have prevented some bad hires dut to better ability to check out candidates in public view.
But we’re heading for the day of Shangri-La for public officials when the state has open government in name only but only for the convenience of public officials and their supporters.
This has come to light after the Florida Society of News Editors published its first annual grades of legislators based on a series of important legislative bills.
Sorry to say, most of the grades were poor. And even the C grades for some senators probably are overly generous since some of the bad bills in the House never came up for a vote in the Senate.
In an email to the Editorial Board, Peterson lamented the poor scores.
“We have a lot of middle-of-the-roaders who received average grades,” she wrote. “I suppose that’s to be expected, but what the scorecard makes unfortunately clear is that we have few open government champions in the Legislature — senators or representatives who are committed to reforming and improving our open government laws.
“There are some who contact me regularly asking for the First Amendment Foundation’s position on a bill and others who speak eloquently on the floor or in committee about the importance of open government.
“But very few bills that would enhance the right of access to government records and meetings are actually filed. And I don’t know why.
“Senate President Joe Negron was the last legislator to get a bill passed that improved the Sunshine Law — that was in 2013. Before that, we have to look all the way back to 1995 when the Electronic Records Bill was passed.
“We’ve had true champions — Anne McKenzie, Peter Rudy Wallace, Toni Jennings, John Carrasas, Doug Wiles — and we need champions again. Our hope is that the scorecard will bring attention to the sad fact that each year our Legislature chips away at the constitutional right of access while rarely doing anything that would enhance that right.” [READ MORE]