Government secrecy is dangerous and will poison our democracy. It’s up to all of us to protect it.
by The News-Press’ Cindy McCurry-Ross (Executive Editor)
February 18, 2017
Picture a government administrator’s top file drawer stuffed with personnel complaints that they are trying to keep secret. You request copies of all citizen complaints, but your request is denied. Your only recourse is to file a lawsuit to get a judge to force compliance with Florida’s public records law. Should you win, under current law, your attorney’s fees are reimbursed.
Picture the shadowy corner of an out-of-the-way restaurant where someone you elected is cutting a deal on how to vote on a tax increase or forging a land-use plan for the property adjacent to your neighborhood. You think you trust them, but how can you be sure?
A phone call leads to another phone call leads to another, and before you know it, public policy that impacts your taxes, your quality of life, your safety has been arranged in those private conversations – and you are not invited to the decision-making party.
Far-fetched? Not so much.
At least two bills have been filed in the days leading up to the 2017 Florida Legislative session that threaten our access to public records and our ability to participate in our own government.
House Bill 843, sponsored by Naples Rep. Byron Donalds would allow two members of a board or commission of five members or more to meet and talk privately about public business. Sen. Dennis Baxley has filed a companion bill in the Florida Senate.
Senate Bill 80, filed by Sen. Greg Steube, would amend Florida law to allow a judge’s discretion of whether to grant attorney’s fees to a plaintiff who has sued after being illegally denied access to records. Currently, judges are required to grant attorney’s fees in such a lawsuit.
Both bills would annihilate the sunshine law, the way we’re accustomed to operating government in the open in Florida.
SB80 would create a chilling effect. The average citizen simply can’t afford to hire an attorney to fight a stubborn or dishonest official who has refused to release records that rightfully belong to the public.
HB 843 amounts to a blatant endorsement of oligarchy.
There is room and time for discussion in both cases.
But don’t take these bills lightly. They are part of a pattern of insidious assault on Floridian’s constitutional rights to open, transparent government – with dozens of exemptions to public records and open meetings statutes filed, and many passed, in recent years.
Regardless of your politics, you are impacted by these bills. If you’re reading this column, you are a news reader and that means you tend to be more educated and more engaged in community and democracy than the average citizen. That means you care.
Step up, contact these bills’ sponsors and your local delegation. Tell them that you value your ability to readily access public records and to sue and recover your costs if necessary. Explain that you want transparent and inclusive government. Demand open, public discussion of public policy. Ask them to stop chipping away at our rights.
Ever the optimist, I believe that most who take on public leadership roles are well-meaning public servants. So I’m baffled by those who think it’s best to govern in the shadows. That smacks of elitism and breeds mistrust.
Government secrecy is dangerous and will poison our democracy. It’s up to all of us to protect it. [READ MORE]