Editorial, Orlando Sentinel
The two top leaders in the Florida Legislature, Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford, made expanding government accountability one of their priorities for the current legislative session. And who could argue with that?
Apparently some local government lobbyists and lawmakers could. If Gaetz and Weatherford don’t put their political muscle where their mouths are, government in Florida could end up less accountable to the public it serves by the time lawmakers conclude their session next month.
A bill backed by Gaetz that would update and strengthen Florida’s open-government guarantees already has rolled through the Senate without a dissenting vote. But the House version of that bill has run smack into opposition from the Florida League of Cities.
Gaetz’s bill is a multifaceted upgrade. It makes clear that citizens needn’t submit requests for government records in writing. It requires government employees who field those requests to be trained in their obligations under the public records law. It stops governments from imposing prohibitively expensive fees for retrieving records.
The president’s legislation also requires organizations that are paid dues by government agencies to open their books to public inspection, so that citizens can see how these tax dollars are being spent. For the same reason, it reinforces the requirement for private contractors to make records on their government work available to the public.
Though much of the Senate bill simplify codifies court rulings on the extent of the public records law, the League of Cities insisted the House version was overly broad and would make local governments more vulnerable to lawsuits. The group urged its members to contact their representatives in the House to kill the measure.
Lawmakers watered down some provisions under pressure from the league during the House bill’s first committee stop this week. But more push-back from the group could doom the bill — unless Weatherford rides to its rescue. How much does he really want government to be more accountable? We’ll find out.
Meanwhile, dozens of other proposals that would make new exceptions to the public’s constitutional right to know in Florida have been introduced by lawmakers. Some are innocuous; others are pernicious.
One in the latter category would conceal most of the process, currently public, for recruiting and vetting leaders at public colleges and universities. Remember, these are among the highest-paying and most-powerful public jobs in Florida.
Another would hide more financial information of companies bidding on state contracts. Shouldn’t the public have a clue whether a bidder is capable of doing what’s expected under a state contract?
Gaetz and Weatherford need to make sure all their members get the message: open government is accountable government.